Spotlight: Rousseau’s ‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm’

Spotlight: Rousseau’s ‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm’

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was a French artist who only started painting at age 35, and only seriously in his early 40’s after a lifetime as a tax collector. Ridiculed by his critics throughout this life, and regarded as an eccentric, Rousseau won a great following from fellow artists Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and Delaunay.

His work generally depicts tropical and exotic subjects. Ironically, he never left France and he got his influence and vision from stories he heard from soldiers’ trips to Mexico, the Garden of Plants in Paris, as well as children, books and other art. His imagination and style were unique at the time and indeed he unknowingly paved the way for what was to be an extremely popular subject matter and for new art movements upon his death.

‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm’ (1891; National Gallery), or ‘Surprised!’ as it was originally called, is eminently fashionable for its time despite being derided by Rousseau’s critics. The Fin de Siecle society was obsessed with exotic subjects (think Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women). This work shows a tiger amid tropical foliage, illuminated by a flash of lightning in the pouring rain,  as the tiger prepares to pounce on its prey in the midst of a raging gale.

More like a poster or pattern, Rousseau used lots of green paint, layering it up to recreate the luscious verdant foliage of the jungle, and silver drips of paint for the lashing rain.

Rousseau exhibited this work in 1891 aged 47 at the un-juried and open-to-all ‘Salon Des Independents’. It would be 10 years until he painted tropical scenes again.

At the time, Rousseau was seen as an eccentric – and it is perhaps telling that in retirement he played the violin on the street to make money. He always courted acceptance but never quite made it and, perhaps with the benefit of some hundred years of hindsight, we can see that he was before his time, a visionary for the flavour of popular aesthetic that was to come.