Monday's Feature Art Work: Carnival Evening by Henri Rousseau

Today's feature art work is Carnival Evening painted by the most famous of all the naive artists Henri Rousseau.

I chose this work to follow on from yesterday's past posts which were focused on light. And in this painting light is an essential element.

I have provided two analyses of the painting for your interest. At first this painting appears as a charming moonlight scene with a whimisical tone. But look carefully and you see that all is not well.

Carnival Evening by Henri Rousseau (Credit: No. 1)

An air of mystery pervades this wintry forest landscape. Dressed in festive carnival costumes, a lone couple stands in front of barren trees. The figures seem to shine from within rather than from the light of the moon, which has strangely left the forest in darkness. An unexplained face leers out from the empty hut beside the figures, and an unexpected street lamp incongruously glows nearby. Known for his fantastic scenes, Rousseau was a self-taught artist whose works appealed to the collectors and avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century, including Pablo Picasso.2

Let's take a closer look at the painting and see if we can find the bodyless face and the unexpected street lamp - both almost impossible to see. First however, a closer look at the couple dressed in the carnival costumes.

Close up from Carnival Evening by Henri Rousseau (Credit: No. 3)

And here is the second analysis of Henri Rousseau's Carnival Evening.

Henri Rousseau’s painting “Carnival Evening” is a picture comprised of darker colors to simulate night time. The setting is both cozy and unsettling, taking place in a forest at night when the moon is highest, with the clouds in the sky low. Oddly enough, the moonlight is as sparse as the leaves on the wiry, wispy trees.

There are two human figures in this painting dressed in colorful and fanciful carnival outfits. The man is wearing a white hat, an all white flowy gown and pants with his buttons the same color as the gown. He also wears blue socks and brown sandals. The woman next to him is dressed in a more intricate outfit. She wears a white and pink hat, a blue dress with light pink socks, blue sandals, as well as a salmon pink bib. Again, the picture is dark both in color and tone.

Just looking at a digital rendering of the painting or a viewing from afar seems to do this image justice due to a dearth of tinier details present in more realistic paintings, but this picture deserves a closer look. The festive outfits, for example, as color filled as they are, still retain a shade of night and, curiously, a dark, abandoned, dilapidated shack located to their right holds a bodyless face in the corner nearest to the couple. One can barely see it, and I only noticed after very careful inspection. The painting's dark colors would normally clash with the vivid exciting outfits, but the darker use of color renders much of that happiness inert. This alone creates a creepy and tense atmosphere, but the face completes this feeling.

I even felt a slight sense of anger toward the couple for making a foolish choice walking into the barren empty woods on a dark night. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the image is dominated by the giant, looming dead trees that seem to grab at the low hanging clouds with their bare branches. The face could very well be representative of the feeling one gets when alone or with finite company in a place that reduces sensory awareness.

Our primal fears of darkness, loneliness, and silence are present for a reason, and the fact that this couple are in such ridiculous outfits is almost comical in its reasoning. Overall, the painting’s low light, clashing of vivid colors against shades of gray and black, the sense of danger and mysteriousness one receives from the abandoned shack and the face peering in the corner, and the dead trees provide a eldritch and menacing atmosphere that escapes one at first glance but becomes horrifying when the realization slowly comes that, perhaps, they are not alone.4

And here is a close up of the bodyless face which is very strange indeed. Nobody knows why Rousseau included this face - perhaps just to make future viewers of his paintings wonder why he did this! We will never know.

And the very faint lamp can just be discerned on the right side of the hut on the roof line. It's not a street lamp but rather a light on top of the shack. A little detail lost in the overall image.

Close up of "face" in Carnival Evening by Henri Rousseau (Credit: No. 3)

Henri Julien Félix Rousseau (1844–1910) was a French post-impressionist painter in the Naïve or Primitive manner. He was also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer), a humorous description of his occupation as a toll and tax collector. He started painting seriously in his early forties; by age 49, he retired from his job to work on his art full-time.

Ridiculed during his lifetime by critics, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality. Rousseau's work exerted an extensive influence on several generations of avant-garde artists. 5



Tomorrow I am going to show you some of my collection of naive art.

Please leave a comment if you would like to respond to Henri Rousseau's Carnival Evening.