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The Snake Charmer

Henri Rousseau1907

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Rousseau, who was self-taught and began painting late in life, travelled very little. Most of his jungles were painted in the Natural History Museum and in the big greenhouse in the botanical gardens in Paris. Like Roussel in his Impressions d'Afrique, Rousseau nourished his exotic dreams in Paris.

Alfred Jarry, André Breton, Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso were among his most fervent admirers. Delaunay's mother commissioned this canvas. Rousseau once remarked to Picasso: "Basically, you do in an Egyptian style what I do in the modern style."

His remark may seem surprising and even funny, yet everything about the Snake Charmer is new: the subject first of all, a black Eve in a disquieting Garden of Eden, charming a snake as terrifying as the serpent in Genesis was seductive. Then the style: the bright, dense colours, backlit, anticipating the colours of a painter like Magritte, drawing that is both precise and naïve, and a vertical composition innovative in its asymmetry.

The human figure, the animals, and the weird vegetation have all been painted with the same painstaking care. This woman charms wild nature, or rather she transfixes it still in a strange silence. The fantastic world of this canvas heralds Surrealism.

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