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“The Sleeping Gypsy” by Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau 010

“The Sleeping Gypsy” by Henri Rousseau

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau is a fantasy depiction of a lion musing over a sleeping woman on a moonlit night. Rousseau portrays an African gypsy in a desert wearing a colourful costume, sleeping in the desert with an Italian stringed instrument and a jar of water. This painting has different elements of importance to different cultures. However, Rousseau decides to mix them all into a unique image.

Rousseau described his painting as:

“A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lied down with her jar beside her and overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chance to pass by picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.”

Henri Rousseau was self-taught and developed a style that lacked traditional training, with its absence of strict proportions, one-point perspective, and with the use of sharp, often unnatural colours. The result was art pieces that were imbued with a sense of mystery and eccentricity.

Rousseau started painting seriously in his early forties, and by age 49 he retired from his job to work on his art full-time. His primary employment before he retired was as the duty customs officer and tax collector. Many critics who ridiculed his work disparaged Rousseau’s style, however, he always aspired, in vain, to common acceptance. Many observers commented that he painted like a child, but the work shows sophistication with his unique style and technique. Following his funeral the following epitaph was written by his friends and put on his tombstone:

We salute you, Gentle Rousseau, you can hear us.
Let our luggage pass duty-free through the gates of heaven.
We will bring you brushes paints and canvas.
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light and Truth of Painting.
As you once did my portrait facing the stars, lion and the gypsy.

Ridiculed during his lifetime by critics, he came to be recognised as a self-taught genius whose work exerted an extensive influence on several generations of avant-garde artists. Today, Henri Rousseau’s paintings are highly valued and prominent in the world’s leading art museums.

Did you know?

  • Henri Rousseau was ridiculed during his lifetime by art critics.
  • Henri Rousseau was self-taught and yet had an extensive influence on many avant-garde artists.
  • This iconic painting has been parodied by various artists with the lion often being replaced by a dog or other animal.
  • This painting was such a departure from Rousseau’s usual subject that it initially led some critics to declare it a forgery.
  • Animals and the jungle both inspired Rousseau. However, his sources of imagination were not extensive travels; it was illustrated books and visits to the Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Paris.
  • After his retirement in 1893, Rousseau supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs and work such as playing the violin in the streets.



  • Is there room today for self-taught artists to make a difference?
  • Is it ever too late to start a new passion?
  • What inspires you?
  • When is it too late to develop a new passion?

The Sleeping Gypsy

  • Title:                            The Sleeping Gypsy
  • French:                        La Bohémienne endormie
  • Artist:                          Henri Rousseau
  • Date:                            1897
  • Medium:                     Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:               129.5 cm × 200.7 cm (51.0 in × 79.0 in)
  • Museum:                    Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC

Henri Rousseau

  • Name:                   Henri Julien Félix Rousseau
  • Born:                    1844 – Laval, Mayenne, France
  • Died:                     1910 (aged 66) – Paris, France
  • Nationality:         French
  • Movement:          Post-Impressionism, Naïve art, Primitivism
  • Notable works:


“Beauty is the promise of happiness.”
– Henri Rousseau


Photo Credits: 1) Henri Rousseau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons