The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope

The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope
Artist Henri Rousseau
Year Exhibited in 1905
Medium Oil on canvas
Location Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Basel, Switzerland
Dimensions 78¾ in × 118½ in
200 cm × 301 cm
Famous Paintings by Henri Rousseau
Tiger in a Tropical Storm
The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope
The Dream
A Carnival Evening
The Sleeping Gypsy
The Football Players
The Snake Charmer
Boy on the Rocks
Exotic Landscape
Complete Works

Though many of the paintings by the post-impressionist French painter Henri Rousseau are scenes of peace in nature, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope is a fairly uncommon depiction of ferocity. The very title tells some, but not all, of what is going on in this lush, typically Rousseauesque jungle.

The lion is hungry and wants to kill and eat antelopes. The antelope seems resigned and even tranquil as it succumbs, its forelegs outstretched in a patch of dark grass. It all reminds one of a James Dickey poem about heaven, where predators endlessly hunt, and preys all but rejoice in being endlessly hunted. Though Rousseau was inspired by a diorama he saw in the Natural History Museum in Paris, he does not even give his lion fangs.

Waiting, Patient Nature

Almost hidden in Rousseau’s beautiful vegetation are a leopard, waiting for scraps. An owl and another meat-eating bird have already torn strips out of the dying animal. An ape-like creature, mostly hidden by leaves, also waits. Like the trees and bushes, the animals form an arc over the trees and bushes that arc over the lion and its victim. This arrangement guides the eye over Rousseau’s foliage, from the hairlike fineness of the gray green grass in the foreground to the green-brown-black of the leaves of the canopy and from there into the calm blue sky and setting sun.

A Not So “Primitive” Painter

Contemplating the lion and the antelope, placed in the lower middle of the picture, also forces the eye back into the depths of the jungle. Though Rousseau was considered a “primitive” painter whose sense of perspective was barely formed, the viewer has the feeling that this jungle is endlessly deep, primeval and has been untouched by humans. Amazingly, Rousseau never set foot in a real jungle and never even left his native France, but drew his trees, shrubs, vines and flowers from what he saw in botanical gardens. His jungles, including the one we see in The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, are really jungles of the mind.

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