The Tropical House Jardin des Plantes

The Tropical House, Jardin des Plantes c.1900
Benoît Lardières, Paris

Speaking to a journalist about his regular visits to the Jardin des Plantes, Rousseau said ‘when I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream’. This dream-like quality is present in the peaceful and tranquil scenes of The Flamingos 1907 andThe Waterfall 1910. Their mood of timeless serenity contrasts markedly with the colonial fantasies that filled the popular press, which usually presented the tropics as a dynamic stage for European adventurers.

Rousseau’s long afternoons at the Jardin des Plantes allowed him to study tropical foliage at first hand. He probably transferred his sketches onto the canvas using a pantograph (a simple copying device made of connecting rods resembling a parallelogram), but then reworked and exaggerated them so that the horticultural varieties can no longer be precisely identified. Clearly, Rousseau was interested less in scientific accuracy than in using jungle vegetation as a decorative motif, allowing him to cover large areas of his canvas with a dense pattern that at times verges on abstraction.

The bare, desert setting used in Tiger Hunt c.1895 is relatively unusual in Rousseau’s work. The painting is also one of Rousseau’s most direct borrowings, based on a work by Rodolphe Ernst which was shown at the official Salon exhibition of 1895. As a self-trained artist, Rousseau developed his knowledge of portraiture, figure painting, and landscape from popular handbooks and by studying Academic paintings at the Paris galleries or from illustrated magazines. His ambition was to join the ranks of the establishment artists, rather than the avant-garde.