The Sleeping Gypsy – Elegance of Childlike Vision

Title: The Sleeping Gypsy (La Bohémienne Endormie)

Author: Henri Rousseau (Laval, France, May 21, 1844 – Paris, France, September 3, 1910)

Date: 1897

Genre: Genre art

Movement: Orientalism, Naïve art

Technique: Oil painting

Support: Canvas

Dimension: 51×79 in. (129.5 x 200.7 cm)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Would you be able to protect your childhood imagination from all the chaos of life?

Suppose you could hold and keep it precisely, and if I asked you to transmit your life onto the canvas by using this imagination, what kind of paintings do you think would come out?

Well, what if a 50-year-old customs agent & self-taught artist could protect it and see the world through the eyes of a child? (Besides, he never took an art class and began paintings only in his forties.) What kind of paintings could he create, and how on earth could his paintings be successful? Or could it be possible?

I assume you would be surprised if I told you that the self-taught artist amazed the world with his raw talent, and his dynamic works astounded viewers. Nonetheless, he influenced revolutionary artists such as Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, André Breton, and Wassily Kandinsky. In the end, he persuaded the world that his extraordinary naive art deserved a place on museum walls.

Today his most standout work, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” is seen hanging in one of the most prominent modern art museums, MoMA. The painting is an excellent depiction of a lion watching over a sleeping woman drenched in the tone of the music while dreaming in the moonlight.

Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, Oil on canvas.

Today we will examine French Naïve artist Henri Rousseau’s most famous The Sleeping Gypsy painting. Shall we reveal all the essential and compelling details of the painting together? Let’s start with its story first.


Back then, Henri Rousseau presented this painting to the mayor of his hometown and wrote a letter to him. You can find his words below as well as find the story of the painting.

“A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies in a deep sleep. A lion chance to pass by picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic. The scene is set in a completely arid desert. The gypsy is dressed in an oriental costume.”

Unfortunately, Rousseau never received a reply to this letter. Since there was no response from the mayor, it was bought by a Parisian charcoal merchant and after that changed hands for years and years. Lastly, The Sleeping Gypsy was acquired by art historian Alfred H. Barr Jr. for the New York Museum of Modern Art.

From left: Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) and Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)
Photo source: MoMA.

A Little Cultural Background for The Sleeping Gypsy

Always intrigued by the nomad gypsies could be the reason why Rousseau painted The Sleeping Gypsy in the first place. So, I want to share briefly the gypsies’ historical background in order to know better our figure of Sleeping Gypsy.

Romani People (colloquially known as Roma) entered Europe from India a thousand years ago. However, French sources refer to the foreign group as bohemians because they had been guaranteed safe conduct by the king of Bohemia. Since the newly arrived Roma was declared to have come from “Little Egypt,” Roma ended up being called Egyptian in French-speaking territories. Because of that, French writers and artists had historically linked the Roma to Egypt as well as Bohemia. Moreover, the words used today – “Gypsy”, “Gitano”, “Gitane” – all derive from “Egyptian.”


“The Sleeping Gypsy” by Henri Rousseau.

The Sleeping Gypsy painting depicts a black woman asleep dressed in a colorfully striped gown with a white scalloped collar lying on the desert. Suddenly a lion with a bright mane and a pointed tail comes out and watches over the sleeping gypsy but does not touch the girl.

The desolate landscape of remote hills and bare ground contrasts strangely with Rousseau’s usual jungles; no other of his works is as stark. However, the primal energy emanates from The Sleeping Gypsy as in his jungle paintings.

Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891, Oil on canvas.
Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910, Oil on canvas. (Exhibited at the 1910 Indépendants a few months before his death)

But before diving into all the technical details, I want to mention Henri Rousseau’s life briefly to understand the painting adequately.

Henri Rousseau The Customs Agent Painter

Henri Rousseau spent most of his career as a customs officer collecting taxes, and friends called him Le Douanier (The Customs Agent). But he was not an ordinary customs agent. Rousseau simply was more than that. Rousseau’s true passion was painting. So he bought himself paints and canvases and set to work without any training whatsoever. More often than not, he painted in his spare time, mostly at night. Unfortunately, the academy refused to accept his efforts, his lack of training, and eventually Rousseau’s works.

Then, without flaking out, quite confident in his capabilities, he exhibited four canvases at the Salon des Indépendants in 1886. 

This new forum had been founded a year before by artists including Georges Seurat in an attempt to oppose the strict imperishable rules of the government’s official Salon. Rather than jurying shows, without any voting or approval, the Indépendants allowed anyone to exhibit for a small annual fee. In addition, the independent exhibitions were the pioneers of today’s gallery.

Salon des Indépendants was formed in Paris on 29 July 1884.
Pietro Antonio Martini, View of the Salon of 1785, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

Rousseau was a Customs Agent who Defied All the Customs!

Henri Rousseau was so distant from the current sense of art or for that matter the École des Beaux-Arts, “official” French art. To be honest, Paul Gauguin, living in isolation on the island of Tahiti, was more in the mainstream than Rousseau. He just toiled away at his art without concerning any convention of art. Although Rousseau had no painting training, he fulfilled to wander in a child’s dream and successfully transferred those onto the canvas. The Sleeping Gypsy is a perfect instance of it as you can see.

Rousseau’s “Naïveté” and His “Primitive” Style

His vision is free from academic conventions and uninfluenced by any school or movement. Rousseaus’ most significant success is developing an entirely new type of art that became known as Naïve, or Outsider, Art. 

Henri Rousseau, Myself: Portrait – Landscape, 1890, Oil on canvas.

Naive art is a concept used to express the works of artists who have never had painting training and have learned to paint or sculpt with their efforts. The most important factors of this style are; deliberately distorted perspective, childlike lines, vibrant colors, and lack of time or fiction. (It is possible to consider the artworks of Frida Kahlo are in naive style as well.)

Raise Your Heads Please, Illustration of The Sleeping Gypsy by Mordicai Gerstein.

The Movement of The Sleeping Gypsy

Even though Henri Rousseuou does not fit neatly into any artistic movement, it is estimated that Orientalism highly influenced him, while he was painting The Sleeping Gypsy. In other words, Orientalism is a movement that European romantic interest in the “Orient,” widely as encompassing both the Middle and the Far East. Moreover, according to some art historians, the stream seen behind the gypsy is an example of the famous Nile river.

Already, Rousseau stated that he received occasionally advice from two academic painters, Félix Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Gérôme is considered one of the most important representatives of Orientalism today.

The Technique of The Sleeping Gypsy

When extraordinary Rousseau painted The Sleeping Gypsy he broke many rules of art and enlightened the path of many people after him with this fabulous painting.

Rousseau used most two colors; the blue of the night sky and the yellowish-tan of the sand. The horizontal planes of color and trim details create an assertive impression. Moreover, we witness his vivid imagination and childlike vision with its flat planes of pure color, simple geometric forms, dreamlike atmosphere, and exotic subjects.

The blue of the night sky
The yellowish-tan of the sand

In addition, Rousseau often painted exotic images of jungles and wild animals, yet he never left France. He comprehended how to paint them by spending hours at the Jardin des Plantes, the botanical garden in Paris, containing stuffed wild animals and greenhouses full of tropical plants. And also, by studying pictures from books. Besides, this is also a demonstration of his brilliant childlike vision.

Time to take a closer look at The Sleeping Gypsy!

What Can You See in The Sleeping Gypsy?

1. The Sleeping Gypsy

The dark-skinned nomad-musician woman after singing to the accompaniment of the mandolin is tired and in a deep sleep, perhaps dreaming calmly despite the large lion standing next to her in a dry land. If the sleeper is dreaming, what might the sleeper be dreaming of?

She holds a walking stick which suggests that she wander from place to place (since gypsies are nomadic) as a mandolin is by her side and a vase full of water.

On the other hand, her dress was like lines of colorful music. Her black hair is spread out on the pillow above her head. (Gypsies typically have black hair and usually wear glowing, colorful clothes.)

Lastly, the gypsy’s body does not seem realistic since it is too flat. More often than not, unschooled artists paint in flat patterns. This was one of the markers that modern artists found tempting in Rousseau’s art.

Rousseau is at his most awkward portraying faces, people succeeded in conveying a sense of the figure’s personality, emotions often through details such as a favorite toy or a treasured possession.

2. The Scary(!) Leon

Even though Rousseau thought he painted a scary lion, the lion seems tamed and curious about the human but not threatening at all.

“The feline, though ferocious, is loathed to leap upon its prey, who, overcome by fatigue, lies in a deep sleep.”

Henri Rousseau

A lion appears to be sniffing the woman. She seems unaware of the presence of the lion as she has fallen into sleep. Let’s think outside of the box for a moment and ask ourselves this, could the lion be part of the woman’s dream?

According to critics, Rousseau spent most of his time on the lion in this painting. He skillfully calculated how the moonlight in the picture would hit the lion.

3. Arid Desert

The ground seems empty and dry. A river and mountains are in the background. Rousseau himself described the setting as “a completely arid desert.”

4. The Poetic Moonlight Effect

It’s nighttime. Everything is floating in the moonlight. The woman’s dress and hair, lion’s mane, even if the dry land. Actually, the woman presented in the painting as if floating in front of the land rather than lying on it, don’t you think?

The moon is shining and the sky is a dark blue which looks natural at first glance. Look at the moon carefully. What do you see?

Rousseau has vaguely painted the features of the man in the moon. He pointed out the eyes, nose, and mouth which is to say imagination and reality came together in Rousseau’s canvas.

5. The Mysterious Detail

There is something even more bizarre about The Sleeping Gypsy. When people or animals walk on sand, what
do you observe? Footprints! There are not any of them. Therefore, I back my first thought, the whole scene could be the woman’s dream?

Let’s take a step further this interpretation! Is this a dream within a dream?

Is the nomad-musician woman dreaming of the lion while the painter himself is dreaming up the whole scene? What do you think about this?

The way I see it, the bizarre presence of the lion, the perfect full moon with man face, the floating figures, or for that matter the abstract form suggest the scene itself might be a dream.

Why was Henri Rousseau not Accepted by the Academy?

According to art historians, the main reason is that Rousseau was a customs agent. Given that general opinion, being a painter without an art education could not be considered an artist. Another reason was that Rousseau’s paintings were entirely far from the academy’s rules.

Since it was so unusual, his paintings were deemed childish, and the painter underestimated even mocked. His paintings have been likened to a coloring book for children. Unfortunately, the number of critics and mockers has always been more than those who liked Rousseau’s paintings throughout his life.

Picasso’s Allusion to Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy

Pablo Picasso, Studio with Plaster Head, summer 1925, Oil on canvas.

You can see the influences from Rousseau’s work in some of Picasso’s paintings. One of the most intriguing of these examples appears in Picasso’s Studio with Plaster Head. The plaster arm clutching a truncated staff is a negative image both in terms of viewpoint and color of the right arm holding a wand of Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy.

Picasso has changed the angle of the elbow of the woman’s arm, turned it back to front, and converted the dusky velvet flesh to white plaster, and on the right side of the picture, he has counterpointed the arm with a carpenter’s square in much the way the mandolin bent at a proto-Cubist angle balances the woman’s arm.

The sleeping gypsy was dreamlike, magical, poetic, yet still, quiet, and peaceful. Rousseau’s most famous painting is yet unusual among his works.

All was said by me, yet, the one more thing left to be told by Henri Rousseau…

“I must learn to draw.”

Henri Rousseau

I have a few questions for you:

What title would you give this painting?
Does the painting have narrative content?

You can share your answers with us in the comments:)

Wanna continue to read more about art? Check out Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio, here.

Until next time, stay with art.. ????????✌

See Also:

Removing a century of treatments on Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy by MoMA
Check Out If Want to Learn More About The Salon
The Museum of Modern Art Map

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