Surprise! (1891) by Henri Rousseau

Surprise! - Henri Rousseau - 1891

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Artwork Information

ArtistHenri Rousseau
MediumOil on Canvas
Dimensions161.9 x 129.8 cm
Art MovementNaïve Art (Primitivism)
Current LocationNational Gallery, London
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About Surprise!

Surprise! is an oil on canvas painting completed by Henri Rousseau in 1891. The painting depicts a tiger preparing to attack its prey amid a tropical storm and illuminated by a flash of lightning. The subject of the painting is highly dynamic, yet it remains sophisticated and balanced due to the use of muted colors. While Rousseau was mainly known for his pastoral scenes with civilized characters, Surprise! is the first jungle painting that he produced. He created an image that was vivid and full of movement, and the elements of surprise at its core are inextricably linked to its title.

The kinetic composition captures perfectly the hunting habits of the animal portrayed in Surprise!. The lion’s ready stance conveys a menace but also reveals a curious hunting strategy: it waits, ready to attack its prey with precision. According to historians, Rousseau had never been to any tropical area while creating this painting – instead, he researched his subject matter through books and encyclopedias. As such, it reflects themes from both western and eastern artworks depicting similar animals attacking their prey.

Rousseau continued this line of thought into his next portrait – Portrait Of Pierre Loti which he painted between 1905-06 – albeit with culturally distinct settings. Through his style and compositions, Rousseau gave life to otherwise motionless subjects such as animals or people as shown in this rare example from 1901’s Portrait Of Pierre Loti. His sensitive portrayals capture the vitals moments that create drama out of everyday occurrences – making them powerful works that will stand out for art history for many centuries to come.

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