Painting of the Day

28 Nov



Carnival Evening. by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Oil on canvas, 1886. Currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

notes from

First shown in the second Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1886, this painting is an early demonstration of Henri Rousseau’s unique chromatic imagination, his proto-Surrealist ability to juggle unexpected pictorial elements, and his untutored but brilliant skill in the stylization of forms. An officer in the French customs service, Rousseau scoured picture books of adventures in exotic locales in search of pictorial motifs. He combined these disparate elements in compelling images that early in the twentieth century attracted the devotion of vanguard artists such as Pablo Picasso. Here Rousseau locates mute, unmoving figures in carnival costume against a calligraphic backdrop of bare black tree trunks and branches. The dwindling light of dusk that filters down through the trees and the crisp winter chill, vividly evoked, both carry a hint of menace. Isolated and vulnerable in their fantasy clothing, the two figures confront the viewer bravely and with naïve conviction, like characters waiting for Samuel Beckett to write them a play. Christopher Riopelle, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 202.

My comments:

Rousseau only started painting in his early forties, devoting himself to painting fully when he quit his job as tax collector at age 49. So Carnival Evening, painted when Rousseau was 42 years old, must have been one of the first paintings that Rousseau accomplished. And what a fantastic start to his career, especially as a painter with no formal training. 

The painting itself is somewhat unique in Rousseau’s oeuvre, since he became most famous for and painted the most of his jungle scenes, featuring exotic animals and plants that he saw in the Paris Botanical Gardens. The caption above’s labeling of Rousseau as a proto-Surrealist is, I think, a perfect way to describe Rousseau: his paintings are not enigmatic and absurd enough to completely mystify us, but they certainly contain an air of mystery and they put figures into unusual situations that aren’t normally part of daily life–in other words, Rousseau doesn’t produce scenes of women at their toilette or a man working at his desk. Instead, in Carnival Evening we have this very strange situation presented to us, and if we try to impose logic onto the narrative of the painting, we may say that the two figures dressed in carnival attire are lost in these woods we see behind them and are searching for their way back to the carnival. And yet, the two figures don’t look lost at all, and look like they very much belong to these spooky yet somehow inviting woods, with spindly black trunks that weave over the sky behind them like delicate black lace. Although the house, the figures, and the woods all juxtaposed together don’t really make any sense, the image does not provoke fear of the unknown; in fact, it makes this carnival evening quite compelling.    

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara November 29, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    this is one of my favorite paintings. it’s very compelling and inviting. i would love to run in these woods at night in costume. Is that Cosmo’s moon above?

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