The "merry jesters" in this painting are a group of monkeys of different species who are huddled together, playing with a back-scratcher and an overturned milk bottle. Their games have paused while they stare out at us with strangely human faces. One monkey is almost completely hidden behind the fronds of a plant to the left of the main group, while another clings dolefully to a tree in the background, seemingly excluded from the jesting.
The painting presents us with puzzles. Where did the monkeys find these objects in the depths of the jungle? What has happened here? Why do they stare out at us? Why do the monkeys act like humans?
Like a pantomime performance, the jesting monkeys are positioned in the centre foreground with dense greenery behind them. Rousseau has painted the foliage in layers resembling the painted flat scenery of theatre productions; the central action is brightly lit as if on stage. Each leaf is clearly delineated with shapes defined by the darkness of the layers behind. Repeated shapes, such as stripes and fans, create patterns and rhythms across the surface.
A sense of symmetry and balance pervades this surprisingly still scene; the heart-shaped leaves of the trees on either side create a frame echoed by the pale bird on the right and the oversized white foxglove on the left.
Behind, heavy dense greens of varying hues express pattern and rhythm rather than a photographic description of the plants.
For Rousseau, this was an enjoyable scene of humour and perhaps even absurdity. The monkeys are mischief-makers and games players; we are presented with the game both of finding them and of wondering about their bizarre activity.
Rousseau's luscious jungle scenes delight us with exotic vegetal backdrops and animals engaged in play or hunting, apparently in far-off lands. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who championed Rousseau's work, claimed that the artist was working from memories of his time in Mexico with the army.
However, Rousseau readily admitted that his travels didn't extend further than the hothouses at the Jardin des Plantes, botanical gardens in Paris.
Rousseau's scenes were, in fact, Jungles in Paris, as the title of the Tate Modern exhibition suggests. The foliage is an assemblage of exotic plants, as seen in the hothouses, and plants and trees native to France - the latter enlarged to a grand scale.
Rousseau's animals were based on those he saw at the Paris Zoo, their stuffed counterparts in dioramas at the Natural History Museum or illustrations in popular publications such as Betes Sauvages, published by the department store Galeries Lafayette. Rousseau was a stationary traveller to the idealised exotic lands he portrayed. He said: "... when I go into the glasshouses and see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream."
The conditions of animal captivity in the Paris Zoo were notoriously bad, even for the expectations of the day, but Rousseau's animals are "liberated from their cages, set to roam and play, fight and devour each other in fantastic hothouses plantations," says Frances Morris, co-curator of the exhibition.
Collaging the various elements from his different sources with the aid of a pantograph (mechanical enlarger), Rousseau created new compositions to reflect his personal vision. The resulting awkwardness and stylisation was mocked by many of his contemporaries and called, pejoratively, naif, but it has become a focus for the high regard in which he is now held.
Rousseau was devoted to Paris, the French Third Republic, and the achievements and technological progress of the fin de si cle era (end of the century). His first jungle scene, "Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)", 1891, was completed not long after the Paris World's Fair in 1889. This was a notable event, a centennial celebration of the French Revolution of 1789 and a proclamation of the strength and colonial expansion of the nation. There was much to see: settlements from the French colonies such as Senegal and Congo were elaborately reconstructed, complete with native inhabitants. At that time, the exotic held a widespread fascination, with jungles and wild animals dear to Parisians.
Frances Morris argues that these subjects became effectively de-exoticised as a result of France's colonial project and that Rousseau's paintings re-exoticised popular imagery of the exotic, making it once again idyllic, terrifying and distant. His jungle paintings seem like a memory of a time before colonial expansion, a place still beyond conquest.
Contemporaneously, among some members of the avant-garde, such as Picasso, Braque, Vlaminck and Derain, there was a growing interest in African art, which appealed to the young artists seeking a new visual language unsullied by western society. Rousseau was co-opted as a "primitive" by these modernists, who sought to champion the "naivete" of his work in a positive light. However, Rousseau only ever followed his own personal vision, the "dreamscapes" of his own imagination.
Catherine Hughes is a freelance artist and educator working with schools at Tate Modern
* Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris is at Tate Modern until February 5. An educational rate of pound;4 per head is available for bookings made at least two weeks in advance. Antenna Audio's multimedia tour costs pound;3.50 for adults, pound;2.50 for children under-14. A free family trail is available.
Tel: education booking line, 020 7887 3959
Henri Rousseau 1844-1910
In 1886, Rousseau made his debut at the Salon des Independents, where he continued to show his work each year. His first jungle painting, "Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)", was exhibited in 1891. One critic called it "the alpha and omega of painting". In 1893, Rousseau retired from work as a customs officer (hence the nickname Le Douanier) to devote his time to painting. He met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1906 and in 1908 Picasso held a banquet in his studio to honour the artist. Rousseau sold several paintings in 1910 through renowned dealer Ambroise Vollard, but died impoverished as his work started to gain recognition.
Ask pupils to describe to each other what they think has happened before this scene. How did the monkeys get the bottle and back-scratcher?
Ask pupils to develop characters and names for each of the monkeys and write a story or a poem about what happens between them. Investigate Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and the film Madagascar (2005) for ideas.
Art and design
Set pupils a brief to design a stage set based on the jungle paintings and make a model of it. Create animals in the paintings from card or Plasticine and insert them into the set.
With pupils, look at the way in which Rousseau "collages" elements from different sources, and study the similar methods of contemporary paintersPeter Doig, Dexter Dalwood and Chris Ofili. Pupilscan develop ideas for a personal "dreamscape" image using collage, photography or digitalimage manipulation with Photoshop or similar software.
* Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris Edited by Christopher Green and Frances Morris, Tate Publishing pound;24.95
* Henri Rousseau: Dreams of the Jungle Illustrated by Werner Schmalenbach, Prestel, out of print
* Henri Rousseau's Jungle Book By Doris Kutschbach, Prestel pound;9.99 (for young children)
* Henri Rousseau By Gotz Adriani, Yale University Press pound;45 Websites
* The National Gallery's Art Action Zone www.nationalgallery.org.ukart_action_zonedefault.htm
* National Gallery of Art, Washington, school resources www.nga.goveducationschoolartsrousseau.htm
* National Gallery of Victoria www.ngv.vic.gov.auorangeriestylesb.html