The Sleeping Gypsy
Henri Rousseau
Oil on canvas

A young gypsy, decked out in a striped dress of many colors, sleeps in the sand of a desert. Her mandolin lies by her side. She keeps one hand tucked in her dress for warmth, and clutches a walking stick in the other.

She wears an expression of utter contentment.

Meanwhile, a lion stands above her, his mouth right by her shoulder--But despite this he seems to be completely unthreatening. His tail points up at an angle, and his eye...I've heard it described as being transfixed, or hypnotic. I think it has that vacant expression most clearly seen in the eyes of a stuffed animal.

In the upper right corner lies the moon. And if you look at it carefully, you'll see it seems to have a face, and it's smiling.

When I first looked at The Sleeping Gypsy, my first thought was that it reminded me of an old children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. It was only after studying it further that I realized how apt that comparison was: both embody a perfect image of childhood fantasy, with its strange mix of violence and innocence.

Despite its very simple appearance, there is much that is not quite right with this painting (including the smiling moon):

  • The lion's hair is meticulously drawn strand by strand, but it grows the wrong way. Rather than starting at the head and flowing backward, its roots lie way back by the the forepaws.
  • The setting of this painting is both everywhere and nowhere. She sleeps in a desert, but right behind her, the ocean (a river?) can be seen, and behind that, a mountain range.
  • Lying by the gypsy is a water jug and a mandolin, but that is all. Why does she carry water but not food? How did she travel such long way without it, in an area clearly devoid of life? And why, instead of bringing food, does she bring a mandolin, of all things? Why is she so content?

This painting is a fantasy. All these inconsistencies point to the fact that it is not meant to be real, that it is a dream. In this setting, the lion, known as the king of the jungle, a predator among predators, exists as an abstraction of danger. But, just as in a child's mind, it adds only a flair of excitement and mystery, not fear. He seems just as curious of the gypsy as we are of him.

I cannot explain the wonder and happiness I feel when I see this painting. I can only say that for a work of art to move someone like me, a lunkhead who usually just doesn't get it, is an accomplishment indeed.

Check it out for yourself:

Pseudo_Intellectual says re The Sleeping Gypsy : It would be perhaps worth mentioning that Rousseau's fantastic elements were not always so intentional as an innocent result of the fact that he drew much of his source material from catalogues and grainy print reproductions of photographs. Not actually having seen a real lion, he probably had worked out that that's how its' mane worked. Similarly the jungle vegetation present in his other paintings were what happened to be flourishing in Paris greenhouses.

arrogantsob remains unconvinced.

A little from
Mostly just my own interpretations, based on some memories of an art history class taken quite a while ago.