His contemporaries called him the Customs Officer (Le Douanier), in reference to his day job as a toll collector in Paris. Mostly a self-taught artist, Henri Rousseau didn’t start painting until he was in his 40s. With his childlike naiveté and vivid imagination, the Frenchman fell right in with the Post-impressionists, having an everlasting impact on modern art. André Breton, the French poet, would later say that Rousseau’s art was “painted poetry” that anticipated Surrealism.
Set between reality and dream, The Sleeping Gypsy is one of Rousseau’s most iconic works. This is how the artist described it in a letter to the mayor of Laval, his hometown:
“A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic. The scene is set in a completely arid desert. The gypsy is dressed in oriental costume.”
In a portrayal quite unusual of a woman in the 19th century, the gypsy is a wandering artist, fully independent to roam the world and follow her heart’s desires. The original title in French, The Sleeping Bohemian, reinforces her identity as an artist, as she sleeps with her mandolin beside her.
Unlike Rousseau’s other exotic paintings, here the artist has replaced the luxurious flora of the jungle with the aridity of the desert. There is deep stillness and peacefulness in this enchanting, moon-washed landscape, with the woman appearing to be asleep, but having her eyes slightly open, as if in a trance.
Rousseau achieves a perfect harmony between sleep and consciousness, the animal kingdom and the human world, art and nature. We do not know if the lion’s mysterious presence is merely a dream or if the animal inexplicably chose not to attack the woman, for she looks like she belongs to the desert.
There has been a lot of speculation about Rousseau’s particular choice to depict a gypsy. Some say that Rousseau found himself in the persona of a wanderer and a fringe artist, while others think the imagery was inspired by the story of Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of penitents. Mary herself spent decades in the desert as an ascetic, repenting for her sins. After her death, it is said that a lion appeared next to her, licking her feet, an image that was adopted by popular culture. If Rousseau had indeed internalized this story, the religious significance doesn’t take away from the mystery and archetypal beauty of the painting, adding instead a more subliminal dimension.