It was with his return to his tropical jungles, which he painted from 1904 until his death in 1910, that Rousseau captured the imagination of the avant-garde and finally secured a measure of critical recognition.
Since 1886, he had regularly exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. Although the organisers tucked his paintings away in remote corners, their distinctive style inevitably attracted attention and, over the years, audiences began to look out for his work. As one critic wrote, ‘In the midst of the hubbub, only a single utterance is heard: ‘Where are the Rousseaus?” ‘
By 1905, his reputation had grown sufficiently to exhibit The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope 1905 at another exhibition, where it was shown alongside works by young avant-garde painters such as Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. With Rousseau’s scene of jungle savagery at its heart, this groundbreaking display was described by critics as the cage aux fauves, or ‘cage of wild beasts’. The exhibition was a triumph for Rousseau, positioning his work among the leading artists of the avant-garde (whose revolutionary use of vibrant colours was henceforth known as ‘Fauvism’).
The ‘naïve’ style mocked by earlier critics was now admired by a new generation of artists and writers. It is no coincidence that the artists who praised Rousseau were also beginning to be fascinated by African sculptures and European folk art. For them, Rousseau was a home-grown curiosity, a ‘modern primitive’ whose violent and exotic jungle paintings captured something of the vitality they admired in these other art forms.
But while his paintings were thought to embody a spirit of untutored simplicity, Rousseau was actually a careful and meticulous worker. He planned his paintings in great detail, gathering images and sketches from different sources. For example, the figures in The Hungry Lion were based on a stuffed animal display in the Paris Natural History Museum. Rousseau then placed them in a tropical scene of impossibly enlarged foliage, mixing desert-plants with those associated with temperate climates.