The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897
57” by 6’7” Oil On Canvas
They tell me this is Rousseau’s most famous painting, although I think several of the jungle pictures must surely be as well known. In any event, this is one of the big ones, in size as well as regard. It is, again, very hard to find an image that does justice to the colors in this painting. I think the image above is pretty close, but I am relying on books and have not seen the canvas in person. It resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
We have a lone gypsy woman, an African gypsy, who has fallen asleep in the desert. She has no tent, and no one with her. Aside from her simple robe and walking stick she owns only the pillow or cloth on which she rests her head, a water jug, and her instrument. Most references call it a mandolin, but it looks more like the Arabic instrument, the aoud to me.
The gypsy woman’s robe is rich with many colors, like Joseph’s, and the presence of the lion reminds us of Joseph’s brothers saying, “Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Like Joseph, she too seems to enjoy the Lord’s favor, for the lion gives us no sense of menace. He seems more curious and awestruck than anything. His bright eye is open warily and he seems almost fearful of her waking.
Imagine you are that gypsy, alone in the world. Your life is plain and harsh, your days filled with the simple nomadic demands of minstrelsy. You walk for endless hours under the desert sun, shambling from place to place hoping to cadge a simple living from your songs. You would think yourself the very picture of a drudge. And yet here is this remarkable, miraculous thing that has happened to you, and you did not even know it. Perhaps in the morning you will see the lion’s tracks, but perhaps not. The meddling desert wind might ensure you never suspect a thing.
This painting reminds me there is another level of mystery to every living person. You can never really know what goes on in another person’s head. Heck, there are millions of things about our own lives that we will never know, and yet we imagine ourselves locked into routine, slaves to toil; so many of us are convinced our fates are cut and dried, we never doubt the things we believe we know about ourselves and those around us. Yet if we could really see what people think of us, even those who love us most, we would be astonished. Who is to say what attracts the lion to this woman? Animals are so sensitive to our moods; perhaps she enjoys an extravagant dream of peace that blesses her soul and enriches the very air around her, drawing the lion into her ambit for just this little while.
I was watching the Looney Tunes on dvd the other day, a Bugs Bunny episode called (I think) “Long-haired Hare.” I suppose I could go look it up but that would involve standing up and moving into the other room and I have a cold and feel sorry for myself so that’s just the way it will be. Anyway, it’s the cartoon where an opera singer keeps trying to rehearse while Bugs is outside near his rabbit hole singing popular music on his banjo. This distracts the opera singer who breaks the banjo over our hero’s head. Bugs carries on with a harp, and again the opera singer finds himself high-stepping across his living room to another popular tune. When this happens, look at the wall behind the singer, above his couch. See that? It’s a copy of Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy. I’d seen this cartoon dozens of times, and never even noticed. Hey, it’s a throwaway cartoon, right? It’s just a job, a way for the guys at Warner Brothers and the Termite Terrace to make a buck. But if that’s the case, why would they bother? Instead the animators choose to communicate with us sub rosa saying, hey, this might only be a cartoon but we are artists, too, or at least we are trying. And maybe if we’re funny enough, and fast enough, and joyful enough we will draw you into our ambit for a little while.
So I’m thinking underneath it all, there is a message here to pay attention or we might not ever learn how special we really are. The sleeping gypsy may only consider herself a wandering minstrel with a snazzy coat, but for a while at least, she was queen of the cats.
If only she had known.