Rousseau in the Jungle

Grade Level: 5–8

While the other paintings in these lessons record actual locations, Rousseau imagined Tropical Forest with Monkeys from trips to botanical gardens, zoos, and illustrations in books. Students will conduct research and imagine themselves in a place other than where they live. They also will investigate the macaque monkey to compare to Rousseau’s depictions.


Henri Rousseau
French, 1844–1910
Tropical Forest with Monkeys, 1910
oil on canvas, 129.5 x 162.5 cm (51 x 64 in.)
National Gallery of Art, John Hay Whitney Collection


NAEA Standards

4-C Students analyze, describe, and demonstrate how factors of time and place (such as climate, resources, ideas, and technology) influence visual characteristics that give meaning and value to a work of art.
6-B Students describe ways in which the principles and subject matter of other disciplines taught in the school are interrelated with the visual arts.

Curriculum Connections

  • Science (ecology)
  • Language Arts
  • Geography


Warm-up Question

While the other paintings in these lessons record actual locations, this is an imaginary place. Rousseau went to botanical gardens and zoos, studied exotic plants and animals, used illustrations in books and his drawings, and used his imagination as inspiration for Tropical Forest with Monkeys. Does anything look imaginary or strange to you?


Henri Rousseau was a toll collector for the city of Paris. This job allowed him to support his wife and nine children and gave him time to pursue his true passion—art. From his post at the tollgates and in strolls through the suburbs of Paris, Rousseau observed the world and filled numerous notebooks with sketches from nature. He also explored the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden and zoo in Paris. There, he studied and drew exotic plants and animals. He retired at age forty-nine to become a full-time artist.

In the last months before his death, Rousseau painted Tropical Forest with Monkeys. In this work, lush plants that look like a jungle surround exotic animals. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that the foliage is not a realistic representation of tropical vegetation. Instead, Rousseau took specimens from the Jardin des Plantes as a point of departure, vastly enlarging and changing them to create his jungle. The trees, for example, are magnified ferns. The yellow-orange lotuses rise high above the water; in reality, they should float on the surface.

The animals in the painting are also a mix of reality and imagination. A brown macaque, a kind of monkey, sits on a rock in a stream with a green bamboo like pole under his legs. To its right a row of lotus flowers leads back to two orange gibbon monkeys swinging through the trees. Rousseau added tails to these normally tailless animals. A black and white langur monkey sits on a branch, scratching his head and fishing with a pole. Another black monkey of indeterminate species sits on a branch peering at an enormous snake that slithers among the lotuses, perhaps posing a danger to the monkeys.

The monkeys depicted here inhabit various parts of Asia and Africa and could only come together in a book, zoo, or artist’s imagination. Found in Rousseau’s studio at the time of his death was an illustrated book of exotic animals called Wild Beasts: Approximately 200 Amusing Illustrations Drawn from the Life of Animals, with an Instructive Text. All five primates in the painting were inspired by photographs in this book.

Guided Practice

  • Despite Rousseau’s poetic license, his painting can still inform us about the kinds of animals and plants in a tropical forest. What does the painting tell you? What other information do you know about a tropical climate that isn’t illustrated in the painting?
  • Look at the “Climates Around the World” map. Where, generally, are rain forests found? (Near the equator.) What is it about that area’s position and climate that would support a rain forest ecosystem? (More exposure to the sun all year, heavy rains every day, hot and humid air.)
  • About twenty-five percent of all the medicines used today start from somewhere in the rain forest. Do you know any other natural resources that can be found in a rain forest? (Rubber, chocolate, nuts and fruits, bamboo, coffee, gum, waxes, and lubricants.)
  • Tropical forests are disappearing faster than any other ecosystem. Why or how do you think they are being destroyed? What happens when we destroy or pollute these areas? (Lose habitat, rivers dry up changing the geography, runoff from cutting pollutes rivers and kills aquatic life, etc.) What are ways to protect rain forests? 


Rousseau imagined a world far away from his everyday life in Paris. To help students make personal connections to the lesson theme, ask them to think about a place other than their hometown where they would like to live. Have them research the place and write a report describing its geography, climate, and natural resources. How would their daily lives be different if they lived there? Is a part of the environment there in danger? How could they be good stewards to protect it?

To illustrate their findings, have students fold a large sheet of paper into four sections. In each section, students should draw or paint:

  1. the geography of the place,
  2. its climate,
  3. its natural resources, and
  4. a portrait of themselves within the environment.


Using the reproduction of Henri Rousseau’s Tropical Forest with Monkeys as a starting point, have students research and write a report on the habitat, lifestyle, and eating habits of the macaque monkey. Ask students to compare their findings to the imaginative depiction of the monkey in Rousseau’s painting and include this comparison in their reports.

Related Resources

Learn about rain forest ecosystems and geosystems through online videos, activities, and informative text at Passport to Knowledge

Create an imaginary landscape with NGAkids Jungle Interactive

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Pair clothing with regional climates in a matching game from The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Access activities, curriculum resources, and information that relate art, science, and the environment from the Environmental Protection Agency

View satellite images of environmental change and descriptions of issues affecting particular locations from the United States Geologic Survey site

Browse hundreds of science and geography lesson plans for fifth and sixth graders through the National Geographic's website


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