The Dream by Henri Rousseau

The Dream by Henri Rousseau
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  • 0:01 The Dream
  • 0:54 Painting Description
  • 1:40 Rousseau's Style
  • 3:01 Interpertations
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the subject, style, and techniques involved in The Dream, a painting by Henri Rousseau. You can then test your understanding with a short quiz.

The Dream

Imagine a jungle, full of plants and exotic animals, brilliant shades of green and deep shadows. Out of the forest appears a snake charmer, playing a soft lullaby to a nude woman, reclining on a European sofa. Is this a dream? No - it's art! But also, yes, a dream. Actually, not just a dream, but The Dream a large oil painting, that's about 6 x 10 feet, completed by Henri Rousseau in 1910.

The Dream, by Henry Rousseau
The Dream, by Rousseau

This complex, enigmatic painting emerged at a time when art was in a major period of transition. Artists questioned not only the role of the painting but also of the artist as well. In terms of art, The Dream is exactly what it claims to be - a perfect, pure image trapped within its own little world before the dreamer awakes.


To understand The Dream, let's start with trying to identify the various parts of it. Now, clearly this is a jungle scene, rich in plant and animal life. Some artists have identified 22 shades of green in this jungle. In the back, behind the wild-eyed tiger, is a mysterious flute-player of clearly exotic ethnicity, half hidden by the shadows. Most shocking, however, is the nude female, reclining idly on a fancy, European-style sofa in the middle of the jungle. The woman was a Polish mistress that Rousseau loved in his youth, named Yadwhiga. On the opposite side of the image, a snake can be seen slithering through the brush, mimicking the curve of the woman's hips and legs.

Rousseau's Style

Now, one of the things that makes this painting of a jungle so fascinating to many people is the fact that Henri Rousseau had never been to a jungle. In fact, throughout his entire life, he never left France. Rousseau studied jungle plants and animals from the national zoo and botanical gardens of Paris, and he based the feel of a jungle setting on travel narratives that were very popular in France at the time. So, The Dream is not entirely meant to be a faithful representation of a jungle, but more of a depiction of what the average French person believed a jungle to feel like.

What's even more impressive is that Rousseau is a self-taught artist, having received no formal artistic education. He is considered one of the geniuses of self-taught art and is often associated with the idea of the naïve painter, a generally self-taught artist who rejected traditional techniques in favor of a more simplistic style. Look at The Dream again. There is little realistic shading, spatial depth, perspective, or foreshortening. The painting feels almost flat. But there is an awareness of traditional art. The nude woman, posed on the sofa, reflects a very common subject of traditional painting. Rousseau maintained the subject of the reclining female nude, but changed the setting, and in doing so, drastically changed the art.

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