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The Dream

Painted by Henri Rousseau, 1910

I've stretched my definition of "dream" for this one--it's just too famous to exclude. This painting looks like a dream, but Rousseau never claimed he dreamed it. Art historians usually treat it as a fantasy--his portrait of the dream process. But is it? He displayed it with a poem:

Yadwigha, falling into sweet sleep,
heard in a lovely dream
the sounds of a musette
played by a kind enchanter.
While the moon shone
on the flowers, the verdant trees,
the wild snakes lent an ear
to the instrument's gay airs.

A woman on a red sofa dreams she's in a jungle being serenaded by an enchanter.
Some viewers tried to turn the scene into a tropical fantasy a la Gauguin, with Yadwigha as a sort of native pinup girl. But then why is she so European? And that sofa! Rousseau finally explained "The woman in question is dreaming she has been transported into the forest, listening to the sounds from the instrument of the enchanter." She's like the painter himself--a Parisian to the bone, yet in love with the idea of the tropics. She falls asleep on the sofa, and...

Furthermore, Yadwigha is no fantasy--she was a real friend of Rousseau's. To most male painters of his era, women were wives, lovers, prostitutes, models and muses, but rarely close friends. Rousseau, however, was known as an exception. There's no documentation proving that Yadwigha really told him she fell asleep on her sofa and dreamed anything like this, but it may well be exactly what Rousseau said--a real dream, just not the painter's! The Dream may be a pioneering cross-gender collaboration.

I think The Dream's fame is partly because its lush, private dreamworld isn't simple voyeurism: it pleases both viewer AND dreamer. Yadwigha's getting serenaded and treated like a love goddess on her divan... and we want to be there too, whether as her or her lover. Male or female, painter or dreamer, we all identify. That may be due to Rousseau's skill, or to the strength of a forgotten woman's dream... or the power of a friendship their contemporaries failed to grasp.

Tolkien argued that the goal of imaginative art is to sharpen your longing for the impossible, making us recognize and clarify our desires--both so they don't trip us up, and so we seek what really matters to us, socially approved of or not--"possible" or not!

I think Rousseau and Yadwigha succeeded here: doesn't this make you want to dream Yadwigha style?

LISTS AND LINKS: dream paintings - Henri Rousseau - jungles - dreamwork - outsiders - babes - dream music - collaborative dream art - that darn sofa - Tolkien

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