Wild Beasts

Wild Beasts (‘Bêtes sauvages’) 1900
Cliché Musée du Vieux-Château, Laval

This room brings together a selection of documentary materials about Rousseau’s life, his friendships with a younger generation of avant-garde artists and writers, and the sources and inspirations for his work.

There was a popular myth spread by Rousseau’s admirers that he had served in the French expeditionary force to Mexico, and that his jungle settings were based on his memories of fighting in the tropics. In fact, as he happily admitted to a journalist, he never travelled further than the Jardin des Plantes. He also found inspiration in the zoological galleries of the Natural History Museum, which included stuffed animal displays. The example shown here was a direct inspiration for The Hungry Lion Room 6.

Rousseau’s imagination was nourished by popular accounts of exploration and colonial adventures, and by visiting the World’s Fair of 1889. He would have been enthralled by the mock tribal villages, whose inhabitants had been shipped in from French colonies around the world to recreate life in West Africa, or the East Indies, or Indochina as a tourist display in the heart of Paris.

Rousseau was an eager scavenger of images from a variety of printed sources, which he adapted and transformed in his paintings. Perhaps his most important source was an album entitled Bêtes sauvages (‘Wild Beasts’) which included around 200 photographs of animals in captivity, many of them in the Jardin des Plantes. Many of his monkeys, lions, gazelles and antelopes can be traced directly to this book.

Attacked by a Tiger

‘Attacked by a Tiger’, Le Petit Journal, 4 April 1909
Benoît Lardières, Paris

Rousseau also drew heavily on the illustrations in a popular magazine called Le Petit Journal, and found figures in postcards, advertisements, and family photographs that could be transplanted into exotic new settings or given new identities.

Rousseau’s technique of adapting images from different sources and bringing them together in one painting could be likened to the aesthetic of collage, which would be developed into a radical new form of art by his great admirer Picasso. Yet while Picasso sought to preserve the rough shock of his juxtapositions, Rousseau skilfully orchestrated his disparate images into an unreal but aesthetically-unified whole.

This room includes a special programme of archival films, with support from Gaumont Pathé Archives.