Artist: Henri Rousseau

Technique: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 204 x 298 cm

Year: 1910

Location of creation: 

Current Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York

Movements: Primitivism

Theme: Symbolic Scene

Subject: Woman lying on a couch in the middle of a tropical forest, where two feline creatures, a dark figure, a serpent, an elephant and birds lurk in the shadows during the night.

General Description:

  1. Description: This painting depicts a dark forest scene at night, where a woman reclines on a modern sofa. The flowers and vegetation surrounds her. We can also see two wild felines at the right, where a dark human figure stands playing a flute in a colourful striped skirt. Lurking the shadows, there’s also an orange snake crawling next to felines, a fruit tree in the middle, where a dark bird stands and an elephant rises its trunk behind, a bird of paradise, brightly lifting of at the left, and the moon that slightly illuminates the main element of the composition, the woman.
  1. Narrative: Indicated by the title, this composition shows the randomness proper to it, where a random modern-day couch is seen in the middle of an idigenous forest. Lots of elements also suggest connections with Eve, the tree of knowledge and the garden of Eden. Still, there are plenty of hidden symbolic creatures lurking in the shadows.
  1. Importance/Contribution: This work is one of the most symbolic and well-known paintings of Rousseau. It culminates all of the dream-like world elements with a more symbolic storyline. It also sets a precedent for the surrealism movement. 
  1. Purpose/Commission: The artist painted this work for his own practice.

Emotional Content:

  1. Mysteriousness: low lighting, saturation and contrast add to the mysticism of the forest seen, full of lurking symbols and creatures.

Intrinsic Content:

  1. Predominance of green: This predominant use of green contributes to the ideal of the untouched wilderness of the forest, emphasizing the connection between man and nature.
  1. Modern Sofa: It symbolizes, not only the mere comfort (that might be associated with the early times of Eve in the Garden of Eden), but also the intrusiveness of humans, and specially westerners, in indigenous grounds.
  1. Moon: The symbol of night and dream, builds up to the fantasy world of the painting.
  1. Elefant: Associated with intelligence, it is considered to be one of the smartest animals on Earth. Rising its trunk behind the tree of knowledge, it also contributes to this ideal of knowledge.
  1. Bird of paradise: This exotic white bird with yellow feathers, carries in its name a hint for the meaning and setting of the painting. The paradise concept plays a crucial role in the understanding of this composition.


  1. Composition Structure: apparent chaotic composition with plenty scattered elements. However there’s a structure to it. The image is subdivided into 3 vertical portions – the first at the left, where the woman lies down, an elephant and a bird lurking out, divided by the fruit tree; the middle portion, where most of the orange toned fruits are, the dark bird, the tigers and the dark figure stands, limited by another tree; and the portion to the right, where the moon peeks through, and the snake goes to hide.
  1. Dark Composition: The little contrast provided by the soft moonlight, only seems to enlighten the woman, emphasizing her as the main subject. Everything else is dark and hard to distinguish.
  1. Low Saturation of Colours: The muddled dark coloured composition is dominated by green tones, with hints of orange, yellow, red, pink and blue.
  1. Rhythm: The repetition of the natural elements, such as trees and many leaves, make for a powerful and dynamic composition.
  1. Shape: The forms are very sinuous and organic, something that resonates to the natural aspects of the composition and its elements.

Technique and Creative Process:

  1. Figures: rudimentary depiction of the human anatomy, ruff sketch of both figures faces and hands, and unproportioned bodies.
  1. Synthetic Approach: The artist synthesizes the natures details, presenting each element in a flat manner. The tigers, the birds and the woman herself are portrayed in a very rudimentary way.
  1. Colour and Surface: Rousseau used an unsaturated colour palette and coloured everything in flat planes with very little trace of brushstrokes, very frequent in his works.

Innovation and Context:
In Pursuit of Paradise: The artist looked to nature in search of paradise on earth and in dreams. Rousseau looked to indigenous tribes of tropical and unknown forest and to the ultimate supernatural experience of dream to reach closer to that utopy.