Savage surprise

Henri Rousseau's stylised beast crashing through an almost abstract jungle has evoked wildly opposed but always strong reactions since 'Tropical Storm with a Tiger' was first shown. James Sharp looks at its enduring appeal

Henri Rousseau's painting "Tropical Storm with a Tiger (Surprise!)" must be one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery - it is certainly a favourite with the gallery's younger visitors. Hard to believe, then, that the picture's simple and naive imagery caused moral outrage when it was first exhibited in 1891.

Many of the details of Henri Rousseau's early life and, in particular, his development as a self-taught painter are unclear and vague. Indeed, much of the mystery surrounding his public persona was, if not deliberately created, certainly encouraged by the artist himself.

Self-aggrandisement was a theme of Rousseau's life. Some commentators have related this to a deep-rooted insecurity. When young, Rousseau had witnessed his family's wealth and social standing decline as a result of his father's misguided business ventures. Did this make the artist strive for recognition and acceptance through his painting? Certainly his job as a Paris toll-collector bored him and offered precious little career opportunity. It is not clear exactly when Rousseau began to paint. He claimed not to have picked up a paintbrush until the age of 42, although this contradicts records that show he obtained a licence to copy in State galleries in 1884, aged 40. He was helped in this application by his Paris neighbour, the painter Felix-August Clement. It was Clement who encouraged him in his early attempts at painting.

Rousseau first came to public prominence when he exhibited a painting called "A Carnival Evening" in an open show organised by the Societe Des Independants in 1886. His childlike style and simple imagery provoked laughter from the critics, but admiration from artists such as Camille Pissaro and Paul Gauguin. This was to set the scene for the rest of his career: mocked by the critics and yet frequently celebrated by his fellow artists - in 1908 he was the guest of honour at a banquet given by Picasso.

"Surprise!" was shown at another Salon des Independants in 1891. Rousseau's symbolism and the iconography of the painting, the very stylised tiger and the motif ornamental nature of the vegetation, which verges on abstraction, provoked strong reactions. Once again Rousseau was derided and feted in equal measure. Whatever the public response, Rousseau himself obviously found great satisfaction in the depiction, in minute detail, of such exotic scenes.

"Surprise!" was the first of a series of 26 jungle paintings, each one ever more complex in terms of composition and imagery.

Teaching ideas

GCSEA-level: By focusing discussion on the compositional elements of the picture and the way in which the artist handles space, A-level and GCSE students can look at the dichotomy between Rousseau's naivety and his subsequent influence on the development of painting at the start of the 20th century.

For instance, do Rousseau's dense, almost claustrophobic textures and rich colours, used with a multiplicity of viewpoints that keep the eye moving across the picture, mask the untrained artist's inability to portray space and depth? Or do they place him firmly alongside Picasso, Braque and others in the development of Cubism at the turn of the 20th century? Furthermore, does the one-dimensional nature of the paintings hide a more sinister interior? Students could compare "Surprise!" with Rousseau's subsequent jungle paintings. How does the iconography change and develop? Does a violent and cruel world lurk behind the ornamental leaves, red suns and perfectly round white moons?

Alternatively, students could examine Rousseau's influence on the Surrealist movement. Does the dreamlike sensibility of the jungle paintings and other works such as "The sleeping Gipsy" shape the work of artists and writers such as Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau and others? Students could create their own surreal worlds through paint or collage.

Key stage 3 pupils will enjoy a multi-media approach. Using a digital camera they could make portraits of themselves within their own surroundings. Images are then scanned into the computer; using a program such as Photoshop, students could build up a multilayered image with an environmental theme. Selecting different images to represent the environment and culture in which they have grown up will help pupils address notions of identity and personal space. Some may feel they want to blend or camouflage themselves into their environment, while others may want to stand out from the crowd. Rousseau's painting lends itself to theatrical interpretation. Could you use it as a starting point for stage design? Or a landscape project? Compare Rousseau's almost-dreamscape with the work of Turner, Peter Lanyon, Richard Long and Graham Sutherland. Pupils could make paintings focusing on the ways in which paint can be used to express feelings.

Primary: The picture is ideal for any art class. Children are captivated by the scene; Rousseau transports them to a faraway exotic land where tigers roam wild through tall lush grasses and thick dense green vegetation. Tell a story. What is the tiger doing? Is it about to attack its poor unsuspecting prey or is that a frightened look in its eye? What about the thunder and lightning? Is that what has spooked the tiger? Why did the artist call the painting "Surprise!"?

Story-telling is a theme for Rousseau's biography, too, with its mixture of fact and carefully crafted fiction. Did he, for instance, visit the Mexican jungle with the French army between 1861 and 1867, as he claimed? Or did the inspiration for the picture come from one of the many visits he was known to have made to the Botanical Gardens of Paris? Pupils should be encouraged to look for evidence in the painting. Does the tiger look real or is it a picture book parody? Pupils could investigate by comparing the work with photographs of tigers in the wild. It could form the basis of a visit to the zoo.

"Surprise!" encourages and rewards careful observation. Primary children need to learn how to look properly when studying paintings. One thing that becomes clear when the actual painting is compared with a postcard reproduction is the number of different greens Rousseau uses - analysis of Rousseau's jungle paintings has revealed more than 50 different shades of green.

As well as colour, there are many other interesting pictorial elements to discuss with younger children from the repeated leaf motif through to the tiger's tail (or is it a snake?).

Finally, children could discuss what sounds they might hear if they were in the painting. Soundtracks could be made to accompany the picture. Primary children don't normally need much encouragement to make jungle noises!

James Sharp is art co-ordinator at Elmhurst Primary School in the London borough of Newham

Resources:

Portrait of a Primitive: The Art of Henri Rousseau. By Ronald Alley. Oxford: Phaidon Presses Ltd, 1978.

For younger readers: A weekend with Rousseau. By Gilles Plazy. Rizzoli, 1993.

The following websites all have references to Henri Rousseau:

www.artofeurope.com

www.artcyclopedia.com

The picture is in the National Gallery's permanent collection in London.

Education department, tel: 020 7747 2424 or visit the website:

www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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