Michael Steinberg, freelance curator and consultant, on Henri Rousseau’s painting, The Sleeping Gypsy
GB Tell me why you chose this painting.
MS It’s a painting that’s always haunted me. I’ve known it as long as I’ve been conscious of painting. For me it’s a totally magical image. I like the mystery of it, the way in which it’s compositionally a combination of the incredible tranquility of the musician sleeping peacefully and the menacing figure of the lion – which isn’t attacking but is still a threat. I remember seeing an animated documentary about Rousseau at elementary school and being surprised by the fact that Rousseau had never actually travelled anywhere in spite of being famous for painting these exotic scenes.
GB Do you think this was seen as beautiful in its day? Or did the naïve style become more beautiful to people over time?
MS It’s a work that didn’t fit current modes of beauty at the time when it was created. If we think of other works from that time, the impressionists and post-impressionists, even that work wasn’t considered beautiful by the world at large. We even think of someone like Renoir making ‘pretty pictures’, using that term in the most disparaging way imaginable. But Rousseau was loved by people like Picasso, who actively collected his work.
GB And yet Rousseau aspired to be hung in the Academy next to very traditional, classical painters such as Bouguereau. Did he come up with this modern style by accident?
MS I don’t have an image of him as having a programmatic span in his work, thinking of the next step. That’s part of the beauty, the mystery of not knowing where these pictures come from. The great apotheosis of beauty is Vermeer. With this Rousseau, nothing is quite right and yet it has this serenity and for me, the same mesmerising strength and solidity, even though the level of skill is nowhere near the same. I think when people refer to something as beautiful disparagingly, it’s the equivalent in pop culture terms of the dumb blonde: the attitude that if something is beautiful it’s not capable of having meaning. This is a painting that’s extraordinarily beautiful and also has multiple acceptable meanings.
GB Did the painting become more beautiful to you as you learned more about Rousseau and his work?
MS I have a direct, unmediated relationship with this painting. It doesn’t require any information you can’t derive directly from the work. I believe a work must engage you without the need for extra information. It’s okay if a work encourages you to seek more information elsewhere but that initial engagement has to be there.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
MS For me I think it is actually physical – music – art – people – even texts, that fill one with pleasurable transforming sensations. Mozart. Vermeer. Dickens. Bardot.