The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope
Rousseau was a frequent visitor to the botanical gardens, zoo, and natural history museum that made up of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The flora and fauna on display there inspired much of the lush and exotic imagery seen in his jungle paintings. Stuffed animal specimens constituted a large portion of the collections of the Jardin des Plantes, which had some 23,000 bird and 6,000 mammal species on view. Placed in glass display cabinets, the specimens were often positioned in dramatic poses, based on both nature and sculptural tradition. Among their various educational purposes, the taxidermic exhibits became an important resource for artists to sketch animals.
Rousseau adapted the poses of the two animals in the center of The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905) from the diorama seen here, which was made for the zoological galleries of the Jardin des Plantes. When Rousseau exhibited the painting at the 1905 Salon d'Automne, it was accompanied by the following caption: "The hungry lion throws itself upon the antelope, devours him; anxiously the panther awaits the moment that he too can claim his share. Birds of prey have torn a strip of flesh from the poor animal that is shedding a tear!"
Rousseau's painting was presented alongside works by the young painters Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck, whose explosive color and bold brush strokes led one critic to describe this landmark exhibition as the "cage aux fauves" (cage of wild beasts). This epithet gave rise to the term "fauvism," still used today to describe the early work of Rousseau's young colleagues. Though Rousseau was never considered a fauve, his scene of jungle savagery amid their avant-garde pictures perhaps inspired the name and certainly tied Rousseau to the young generation of progressive artists.