Here is “The Dream,” the last painting completed by Henri Rousseau, the toll collector who became a self-taught artistic genius at the end of his life. The painting shows Rousseau’s mistress Yadwigha (a long-sundered lover from the painter’s youth). She is naked, reclining on a stuffed divan which magically floats through a jungle filled with lions, strange larger-than-life flowers, tropical birds, and a hidden elephant. The other main figure of the composition is the enigmatic snake charmer who reappears from other Rousseau works and seems to represent the beauty and mystery of the world. As this dark figure plays the recorder he or she casts a mysterious enchantment upon the fulsome flora and fauna. The work seems to suggest that life is a transient dream of surpassing beauty–but a dream in which the meaning remains wild and elusive. What we think we know is ultimately subsumed by nature and the greater forces of the unknown.
Rousseau wrote a poem to explain the painting, but the poem says little which is not obvious (or which the viewer does not already intuit):
Yadwigha dans un beau rêve
S’étant endormie doucement
Entendait les sons d’une musette
Dont jouait un charmeur bien pensant.
Pendant que la lune reflète
Sur les fleuves [or fleurs], les arbres verdoyants,
Les fauves serpents prêtent l’oreille
Aux airs gais de l’instrument.
(Yadwigha in a beautiful dream
Having fallen gently to sleep
Heard the sounds of a reed instrument
Played by a well-intentioned [snake] charmer.
As the moon reflected
On the rivers [or flowers], the verdant trees,
The wild snakes lend an ear
To the joyous tunes of the instrument.)