Henri Rousseau Portrait of a Lady

Henri Rousseau
Portrait of a Lady 1895–7
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The portraits in this room, painted within a few years of each other, are thought to depict the two most important women in Rousseau’s life. Portrait of a Lady 1895–7 is believed to be his first wife Clémence, who died in 1888, and whose memory Rousseau still kept sacred.

Portrait of a Woman 1895 reportedly depicts a Polish woman called Yadwigha, one of Rousseau’s early loves. Almost nothing is known about her, but she occupied an important place in Rousseau’s imagination since she appears in one of his plays and as the reclining nude in his last great work, The Dream 1910. Pablo Picasso was transfixed by Portrait of a Woman when he discovered it in a junk shop and bought it for a mere five francs. To celebrate his purchase, Picasso hosted a ‘banquet’ in his studio, at which the Paris avant-garde paid riotous homage to Rousseau.

Rousseau’s growing acceptance by the avant-garde led to his commission to paint The Snake Charmer 1907 for Berthe, Comtesse de Delaunay, the mother of the artist Robert Delaunay. The painting is said to have been inspired by Berthe’s own tales of her travels in India. With this return to his beloved jungle theme, Rousseau introduces the figure of a hypnotic enchanter whose presence seems to create the odd dreamlike stillness of the painting.

Another enchanter is placed at the centre of The Dream, a painting that mystified critics when it was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1910: they could not understand why the naked woman should be reclining on a velvet sofa in the middle of the jungle. For Rousseau, the answer was obvious. As he explained in a letter to a critic: ‘The woman sleeping on this sofa dreams that she is transported into the middle of the forest, hearing the charmer’s pipe’. For Rousseau’s young admirers, this work was perhaps the pinnacle of his achievement. When it was unveiled at the Salon des Indépendants, the poet and critic Apollinaire wrote: ‘The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year’.