The Sleeping Gypsy: A painting before its time.

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau

It was even stronger than the adrenaline rush I received from shopping. Like a little kid in a candy store… I got lost in the maze of paintings and exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art. I was collecting profound images and storing them in my brain. I tried to visually memorize each detail, nuance, and hidden meaning. I wanted to capture the art and keep it.

The Museum of Modern Art, located at 11 West 53 Street in Manhattan, New York, houses numerous works of art that deliver the perspectives of innovative, sometimes even revolutionary artists.Tourists from all around the world visit MOMA to view the work of noted artists. People seek art and purchase it not only to acknowledge its beauty, but also its purpose. Art can convey many meanings. The use of art can also be extremely powerful in the development of cultures around the world. It can be a unifying factor in the bridge between various cultures.

As I walked through the gallery of paintings and sculptures from infamous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, I noticed one particular painting that gave me the feeling of love at first sight. It was the 1897 painting called The Sleeping Gypsy by French painter, Henri Rousseau. The work of art was vivid, calm, and serene. It depicted a lion standing above a gypsy sleeping in a desert against the night sky.

The image’s composition and strong use of color glued my eyes to the canvas as I examined the gypsy’s cultural colorful frock. Right beside her laid a jar and a mandolin (an Italian stringed instrument). Rousseau deliberately used various cultural items to portray a meaning. But exactly what meaning was the artist trying to deliver? I stood in front of the painting and began to ponder.

A letter of Rousseau explains his subject in further detail, “A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic. The scene is set in a completely arid desert. The gypsy is dressed in oriental costume.”

Henri Rousseau was an artist before his time. He was on to a new idea of integrating and mixing cultural items to create a universal meaning. In The Sleeping Gypsy, he portrays an African gypsy in a desert wearing an Oriental costume. She lies beside an Italian stringed instrument and jar of water. These items each have significant importance to the cultures in which they belong. The Oriental frock and mandolin are all customary to their respective Asian and Italian cultures. However, Rousseau decides to mix them all together in his own painting.

The image of the gypsy as she is sleeping under the lion can be interpreted in multiple ways. As I pondered, I began to draw many ideas from the painting. Perhaps the lion is just a dangerous, powerful animal misunderstood without any intention of destroying the gypsy but simply loving her. Maybe the lion is curious about her culture and her vulnerability.  Perhaps the gypsy represents the mother of all cultures and minorities and the lion represents the dominant rulers of society. Perhaps the gypsy’s susceptibility and dormancy as she is sleeping shows the control society has over her. Maybe the gypsy represents each and every one of us sleeping in the night, not knowing what is to come and what is to fear. It is quite possible that the image shows how little control we may have at times in our lives. Perhaps the painting shows we are always prey to the powerful.

The big idea here is that many meanings and symbols can be drawn from a single work of art. Rousseau used his own interpretation of various cultures to create an image quite universal to all. He placed cultural ideas, images, and items into a modern painting showing the unity of the cultures and the vulnerability of all human beings regardless of their differences. The Sleeping Gypsy is a true standout piece and sets a standard for its kind.

There is an ethical, responsible way to mix and use cultures other than your own to create a universal message communicating values shared with people

across the world.  The artistic movement spans all borders and does something that many other movements cannot. It can reach people on a much deeper level, say what words cannot express, and demonstrate the deepness of the human mind.

Art is said to imitate life and nature. Art need not always be in a museum. Art starts with culture, people, and a set of beliefs or values.  Tom Wolfe once said, “Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.”


10 comments on “The Sleeping Gypsy: A painting before its time.

  1. umanbn says:

    if you want constructive criticism I would say that you write really well, its interesting stuff, I like your idea of trying to build cultural bridges through art/fashion…only criticism but that goes for a lot of blogs is that the posts are really long….its not that they’re not engaging but not everyone has so much time. Can you say what to say in less words… 🙂 🙂

    • thanks! I’m actually quite concerned about that as well. I’m right now in the process of really trying to edit my writing. Sometimes when I write it comes freely, but editing is probably the hardest part! Thanks so much for the feedback…please continue reading and spot for some improvements!

  2. joshgreenf says:

    You’re blog is great, glad to see someone interested in art. Interesting article as well, I’d love to affiliate with your site

  3. Zoe says:

    I enjoyed this post. I am captivated by this painting, as well, so i thoroughly enjoyed wandering threw your thoughts about it. It is mesmerizing, isn’t it.

    I think the gypsy, was on a journey, with her friend the lion who protected her while she slept. In turn, she provided the lion with mice by playing the mandolin and drawing them from their burrows. The jar is water for them both. 🙂

  4. Alex says:

    I agree with umanbn, your writing is sheer genius, but for those who are not pensioners, we will need concise imagery. Editing is the stage that all writers despise, because an editor will turn your work into something you will consider an abberation.

  5. Richard says:

    I came here because I was rereading my diary from 1970, when I was in college and wrote an Art paper on the painting that talked about a lot of the themes you write here. I was very disappointed that my professor gave me only a C on the paper. “You did not state this painting was a DREAM,” he said. “That you missed that shows that you didn’t really understand the painting at all.” I was only a teenage boy then and just assumed I was stupid for writing so much about the relationships between the different shapes and colors in the painting and suggesting some other interpretations than just a dream.

    Thanks for letting me see maybe I was not so stupid.

    • Thanks so much for your comment Richard and sorry for taking such a while to respond! This painting to me is a lot more than a dream perhaps the shapes and colors give it a “dream-like” quality. But I am glad you found the blog post to be helpful. Of course we all have different interpretations of a single work of art.

  6. Gabriela says:

    This was perfect. I am more inclined to think that the lion was protecting her from the dangers of the desert.

  7. Joe Wynne says:

    I appreciate your take on this extremely interesting painting.

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