Picture of the month August

A painting full of surprises

This mesmerising painting by Henri Rousseau surprised viewers when it was first exhibited in 1891. Having failed to get his works accepted by the Salon jury at the official Academy in Paris, Rousseau exhibited the painting at the ‘Salon des Indépendants’, which did not involve a judging panel and was open to all artists. Here, several critics mocked the painting as naïve and childish, because it did not follow conventions, but it caught the eye of those who championed avant-garde art, including Picasso, and brought Rousseau some recognition.

Henri Rousseau, Surprised!, 1891

In fact, the painting is not as simple as it looks. The lush foliage of the jungle is suggested by stripes in different hues of green, while the lashing rain is evoked by thin strands of white and grey glazing applied in diagonal streaks across the entire surface of the painting. Together these stripes create a decorative pattern across the surface of the canvas reminiscent of marquetry or tapestry. The overall effect is very evocative, and it’s not hard to feel a shiver of excitement as you imagine the flashes of lightning, booming thunder, and exotic scents suggested by this image of a tiger stalking through the jungle.

The painting speaks of the 19th-century fascination in colonial France for all things exotic, which in the popular imagination meant rampaging tigers, bloodythirsty natives, and damsels in distress! It was later described by the artist as representing a tiger hunting explorers, suggesting the title of the painting, ‘Surprise!’, refers to the rather nasty shock that the tiger is about to give its human prey.

Henri Rousseau