The lion and the gypsy

Isn't this a strange and beautiful scene? We wonder what it is all about while we almost feel the cool desert night air and enjoy the moonlit, starlit sky. But will the gypsy wake up? The artist, Henri Rousseau, loved to draw and paint from his childhood, but he could never afford to go to art school or take lessons. After serving in the French Army, he was a clerk at the customs office. It was because of this that he was nicknamed Le Douanier, or the Customs Officer. When he retired on a small pension at age 41, he devoted himself to painting. He wrote that he ``worked alone, without any master but nature and some advice from G'er^ome and Cl'ement.'' These were well-known painters at the time in Paris.

His early paintings show clearly that he was completely untaught in drawing. He is called a ``naive,'' or ``primitive,'' painter. But only one year after he began painting in earnest, he presented his first canvas at the Salon des Ind'ependants in Paris.

It was ridiculed because of his simple style. But Rousseau didn't mind. He kept on improving his technique and exhibiting until he was recognized by artists like Pablo Picasso. He considered himself a realist and liked to include such things as factories and hot-air balloons in his paintings. But his best paintings, like this one, are those where his imagination creates deserts and jungles, places he may have never visited.

``The Sleeping Gypsy'' is a large canvas painted with much more beautiful colors and surfaces than his earlier, more primitive paintings. The gypsy's dress is composed of softly bright, narrow stripes of red, yellow, orange, and green, contrasting with the simple browns of the desert sand, the lion, and the grayish distant hills or dunes. The sky is night blue, lit with probably the loveliest moon ever painted. The gypsy's water jug is dark red; bright red circles the rim of the sound box of her mandolin; and even her toenails are delicately rosy. It was so different from all the other paintings shown that, for all its striking beauty, a critic wrote that Rousseau had made ``an utter fool of himself'' when it was exhibited in Paris in 1897.

The painter was still completely undisturbed by harsh and unjustified criticism. Convinced of the worth of his work, he could say to Picasso: ``Picasso, you and I are the greatest painters of our time, you in the Egyptian style, I in the modern.''

Rousseau describes his painting as follows: ``A wandering Negress, playing her mandolin, with her jar beside her, sleeps deeply, worn out by fatigue. A lion wanders by, detects her, and doesn't devour her. There's an effect of moonlight, very poetic....''

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