Conservation Rousseau

The partnership with the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse

The Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse has been partnering the restoration of art works in Europe, Asia and the United States for over 20 years, in the desire to play an active role in ensuring that museum holdings are preserved and can so be passed on to future generations. It has already sponsored over a dozen projects in Switzerland, benefitting the conservation of major works by Max Ernst, Mattia Preti, Auguste Rodin, Bram van Velde and Paolo Veronese. The Fondation Beyeler is delighted to be able to restore three key pieces in its collection with the support of the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse. Over a period of three years, our team of conservators and curators will devote themselves to the following works: Henri  Rousseau’s painting Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope (1898/1905), Fernand Léger’s painting Le passage à niveau (1912), and the sculpture discussed here, Max Ernst’s The King Playing with the Queen (1944).

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) is one of the most singular artists of the late 19th century. The fact that he was self-taught as a painter meant that the academic art world, the critics and the public at first refused to take him seriously. His pictures only began to attract attention in the early 20th century, in particular within avant-garde circles. In 1905 Rousseau made his decisive breakthrough at the prestigious Paris Salon d’Automne with his large jungle painting Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l‘antilope (The Hungry Lion Attacking an Antelope), a work that today ranks among the absolute highlights of the Beyeler Collection. The jury’s decision to select the painting for the Salon d’Automne marked a sensational turning-point in the artist’s career: having been ridiculed up to that point as an amateur, Rousseau had now earned the official stamp of approval. Le lion, ayant faim occupies a particularly significant place within the artist’s oeuvre. In all likelihood it was painted in 1898 for the Salon des Indépendants, but was only awarded a place of honor at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. It was the first work by Rousseau to be sold on the art market, and it is perhaps due to this commercial success that Rousseau painted over twenty jungle pictures in the final years of his life. Rousseau was greatly admired by the avant-garde and his painting exerted a shaping influence on the course of 20th-century painting. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Max Ernst were profoundly impressed by his art.  

In contrast to the Impressionists and Postimpressionists, Rousseau does not dissolve the pictorial object into shimmering flecks of light and color, but banishes it to the pictorial plane with uncommon directness by means of clear lines and hard contours. Characteristic features of Rousseau’s paintings, and in particular his exotic jungle pictures, are their subtle harmonies of color and form and their tension between objectivity and enigmatic fantasy. His works are carefully composed and infused with extraordinary power and poetry.


The major Henri Rousseau exhibition held at the Fondation Beyeler in 2010 provided a fascinating opportunity to compare the painting Le lion, ayant faim with other important works from the artist’s oeuvre both in terms of style and technique. Experts from various institutions who visited the show took the occasion to exchange ideas with conservators and curators at the Fondation Beyeler. Later that same year, new findings on Rousseau’s media and methods were presented at an academic symposium held at the De Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, to which the Fondation Beyeler also contributed. It became apparent that the information available to us regarding Henri Rousseau’s painting technique is still very limited, and that a great deal of research in this area remains to be done. As a result, the important painting in our collection was selected for a conservation project to allow the materials, techniques and the artistic process to be studied in depth. As part of this investigation, the painting will be examined using a range of scientific techniques, such as X-radiography and infrared imaging, thermal coating testing, and pigment and binder analyses. Focus will also fall upon the evaluation of areas of historical overpainting, some of which are visible with the naked eye. Up till now it has not been possible to determine whether these represent improvements carried out by Rousseau himself, or restorations by a later hand.

Henri Rousseau
"Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope", 1898/1905
Oil on canvas, 200 x 301 cm © ProLitteris, Zürich
Henri Rousseau
Portrait of the artist