Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope, 1898/1905
The Hungry Lion Attacking an Antelope Oil on canvas, 200 x 301 cm Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel
It was with this famous jungle painting that Rousseau made his breakthrough at the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1905. The target of mockery and ridicule in the nineteenth century, at the start of the twentieth he became a revered artist of the avant-garde. Apollinaire, Delaunay, Léger, Braque and Picasso all visited him in his studio, and Wassily Kandinsky praised him in the Blauer Reiter almanac as the “father of grand realism”. A typical feature of Rousseau’s paintings is the tension between botanical objectivity and the aura of enigmatic fantasy. Rousseau had only second-hand knowledge of the world’s exotic regions. He modelled his animals and plants instead from magazines, photos and the dioramas in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. His wilderness is presented as a beautifully arranged herbarium: leaf upon leaf, one blade of grass beside the next. Rousseau’s jungle is a well-composed symphony in green, a meticulously painted collage of flora and fauna. At the very centre, with other animals looking on, we are witness to a life-and-death struggle.