'Tiger In A Tropical Storm' by Henri Rousseau in 1891, medium - Oil on canvas, lLocation - National Gallery, London, England
Looking at the vibrant and surreal Tiger in a Tropical Storm, it's easy to get lost in its visual tale of a dangerous night in a lush and lively jungle. Amazingly, the story behind Henri Rousseau's most iconic work is even richer. Tiger in a Tropical Storm played to a contemporary craze for savage animal art: In 1885, the prestigious art school Ecole des Beaux-Arts held an exhibition on Delacroix that featured several of his paintings of big cats. Eager to make an impression with the academics of the art world, Rousseau tried his hand at a jungle scene in 1891, and his most famous work was born.
The Academy rejected Tiger in a Tropical Storm from their exhibit: At 35, Rousseau was teaching himself to paint while working as a customs agent outside of Paris. The aspiring artist longed to win the respect of the French Academy, but its conservative jury didn't appreciate his graphic style and declined to feature his work.
The painting made Rousseau famous nonetheless: Undeterred, Rousseau successfully submitted this piece to the unjuried Salon de Indépendants in 1891, where he had been exhibiting his work nearly every year since 1886. Two years after he first exhibited Tiger in a Tropical Storm, the 49-year-old Rousseau officially retired from his work in the toll service to fully focus on his artistic ambitions.
The painting has a playful alternate title: As Tiger in a Tropical Storm, the piece was snubbed by Academie de peinture et de sculpture. So Rousseau re-christened it Surprised! for its submission to Salon de Indépendants' show.
It debuted to mixed reviews: Critics derided Tiger in a Tropical Storm as 'childish,' but Swiss painter and acclaimed printmaker Félix Vallotton declared, "His tiger surprising its prey is a 'must-see'; it's the alpha and omega of painting and so disconcerting that, before so much competency and childish naïveté, the most deeply rooted convictions are held up and questioned."
This outsider art inspired others: The divide between critics and his fellow artists over his work continued the rest of Rousseau's life. But as his fan club picked up such noteworthy members as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rousseau's reputation grew, albeit posthumously. As years went by, his jungle paintings in particular became recognized as some of the most instantly lovable yet persistently mysterious advances in the history of art.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm is not as simple as it seems: Part of the reason Tiger in a Tropical Storm drew the ire of critics was because of the flat appearance of its figures. However, modern evaluations of the work have celebrated the dreamlike quality Rousseau's approach lends to this exotic locale. On top of that, his use of myriad green shades precisely layered on the leaves has since been admired for its technique.
Rousseau's jungle was likely inspired by French gardens: The artist claimed his jungle scenes were inspired by travels through Mexico as a regimental bandsman. However, this Post-Impressionist painter had never actually left France. Far more likely is that Jardin des Plantes-down the street from where he worked-was the source of Tiger in a Tropical Storm's vivid flora. Further supporting this theory is something Rousseau once said to art critic Arsène Alexandre: "I don't know if you're like me, but when I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream."
The inspiration for the tiger is debated: The botanical garden also had a taxidermy gallery of exotic animals, so it's possible Rousseau sketched from a stuffed tiger. Other theories suggest a zoo, reference books, or oral accounts. Rousseau also found inspiration in the works of his French forefathers: Another possible source for the tiger's muse are the jungle paintings of Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix, like A Young Tiger Playing With Its Mother or Tiger and Snake. But it is academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau's signature satiny finishes that informed the slick texture of Tiger in a Tropical Storm's lashing rain.
The tiger became a recurring figure in Rousseau's works: Scouts Attacked by a Tiger (1904) and Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908) displayed the big feline in moments of gruesome and glorious victory. But Tiger Hunt turned the tables on this jungle cat.
It's bigger than you'd expect: Perhaps because of its intimacy or immediacy, Tiger in a Tropical Storm seems like it should live on a small canvas. Maybe because Rousseau was looking to get noticed, he painted this compelling scene on a canvas that measures nearly 5.33 feet by 4.25 feet.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm invites you to use your imagination: Though Rousseau lovingly captured every leaf and lash of rain, the painting's composition willfully excludes the prey on which this snarling predator is about to pounce. Some have speculated the artist's intention was for the viewer to complete the scene in their own head, allowing every person to create their own story from Rousseau's jumping-off point. The tiger might be a man-eater: However, Rousseau later claimed the unseen victim of this surprise attack is a pack of ambushed explorers.
London proudly claims Tiger in a Tropical Storm: The painting has been a part of the National Gallery's collection since 1972. In 2005, the museum celebrated this piece along with those that followed with a special traveling exhibition Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris. The tour reinvigorated the critical discussion of Tiger in a Tropical Storm, positioned Rousseau as ahead of his time, and further cemented its place in the canon of great art. And in this way, the self-taught artist has achieved his long-desired ambition to be embraced by art's academics.
The writer is an entertainment journalist www.mentalfloss.com