Fifty-four

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Surprised!

1891 by Henri Rousseau
The National Gallery

Surprised! was Rousseau’s first jungle painting and, though he didn’t return to the theme until some years later, the scenes became his most famous. Though criticised by his contemporaries for his childish inspirations, it is his naïve style that makes his paintings so compelling. The clear lines and warmth of shading – colouring in – give a clarity to the image reminiscent of illustration; we may peer through the grasses to an undergrowth that seems to go on for ever, as detail continues in layer upon layer of richly coloured foliage. Expanding across its own wall in the National Gallery, this painting draws people to it; eyes cross the composition slowly, resting on the perfectly articulated leaves and blades of grass, rushing in the wind. The picture has terrific movement as weather is everywhere, rain beautifully evident through the darkness of tree trunks and sky; it is a dashing, needle-thin filter that fades beneath the canopy of the jungle, barely visible in bright colour. Wind rushes in from above, pulling branches mercilessly down, the grasses bending to its command, while lightening flashes in the distance – even the tiger mirrors the weather’s direction in his diagonal pause of attack. The excitement – the agitation of the storm and the tiger on the hunt – is picked up in red: in the leaves that waver like fingers at the end of a branch, burning bright, and the blood-red of the tiger’s teeth-baring mouth. It is a great image, not to be forgotten, as it lies waiting in the depths of the National Gallery.

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