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Posted at 2:04 PM ET, 07/11/2006

Wild World of Rousseau

By Julia Beizer

I'm not much of an artist myself -- creatively clipped T-shirts are about as close as I come -- but I can't imagine painting a place I'd never seen. Colors, light, shape, line: don't you first need to see those things in order to put them to paper?

In the case of Henri Rousseau, the answer is apparently no. The artist known for painting lush tropical scenes never actually left the confines of Paris. "Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris," an exhibition opening Sunday in the National Gallery's East Building, puts the artist's work in context with his inspiration: newspaper clippings of faraway places and natural history exhibitions, zoos and botanical gardens within the City of Lights.

A highlight of the exhibition is "The Hungry Lion Throws Itself Upon the Antelope." The gallery has placed this large-scale work (approximately six-and-a-half by nine-and-a-half feet) right behind a stuffed display of a lion attacking an antelope. Wall text informs us -- as if we couldn't already tell -- that Rousseau used this taxidermic specimen as an inspiration for his painting. The magazines and books he used as source material are most intriguing in this section of the exhibition. It becomes clear that even a homebody like Rousseau could paint these wild spaces because his curiosity about the exotic was insatiable. He studied whatever he could get his hands on, much like an artist who sketches the works of the old masters.

This exhibition, the first retrospective of the artist's work in 20 years, is not for fans of high realism. Rousseau's scenes are not grounded in the physical laws of nature. Many works -- most notably "The Dream" -- appear to be total flights of fancy. The vivid, surreal scenes extend beyond his jungle paintings, though. The unruly plants even creep into Rousseau's paintings of Parisian people and landscapes. Delicate leaves overpower the lovers in "Rendezvous in the Forest." "Portrait of a Lady" delivers a towering figure in an awkward-shaped dress standing in a dense garden, reminiscent of the famous jungle scenes that await in the next room.

--Julia

By Julia Beizer  | July 11, 2006; 2:04 PM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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