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The Attack

tflurry's picture

What drew me to this painting is primarily the subject matter, and the way the subjects seem to almost glow against the dark background. Two men in white and a ferocious tiger battle desperately deep in some jungle, and there is no way to tell who will win. The piece is “Scout Attacked by a Tiger”, by Henri Rousseau, and it made me think.


The first thing I consciously noticed about the painting was that the tiger was very lean, it’s body almost conical; this sense is emphasized by the unbroken stripes that run in simple curves along the belly, unlike a live tiger’s stripes, which waver and break more irregularly. The tiger is attacking a man who lying on the ground, center stage, while another man menaces the tiger with his spear from a frightened horse’s back. Both men wear simple white clothing that is well suited to very sunny, very hot environments; the attacking man’s sleeves are rolled up. The horse is dark enough brown that it almost blends into the background; them men are dark enough to disappear in to the background, but for their white clothing. The head of the fallen man looks oddly small, while the man riding has a proportionately sized head, but the angle in his back does not make sense compared to his position. One of his arms is around the horse’s neck, another on the spear, and a ¾ torso turn, and yet there is a sudden almost sharp point in his back above his belt; it makes no sense. The tiger’s body is at an angle, but the rest of its head is in silhouette; the tiger’s head is also more detailed than those of the men, who do not even have faces. On a whole, the tiger seems improbably proportioned with oddly thin legs and odd anatomy, and the face reminds me of a dog, a rat, or a starving cat. The horse, by contrast, looks like a perfectly civilized horse. It has a specially trimmed mane that is longer near the eyes and much shorter near the neck, and is wearing blinders, a western bridle, and an odd saddle that is very high in the back. Over all, it looks not unlike a carriage horse for those pleasure carriage rides one can get in the city. The horse is rearing in fright, but no teeth are visible in its mouth, and the horse’s hooves are nearly invisible on the background; clearly the animal is no match for an attacking tiger. Considering that in this picture, the horse’s tale is as long as five grass blades are wide


Around their bodies grow huge grass blades, various shades of light green, which seem to grow more in sheaths than in individual blades. The grass is so wide that the horse’s tail is five grass blade widths long. The jungle as a whole, however, is very dark; this effect was achieved by painting the plants in the far back in a middle-dark tone, with darker plant silhouettes in front. The foremost thing in the frame is a plant- it gives the impression that the viewer is watching this scene unfold from in the jungle, just outside of the clearing where the characters grapple. The foremost vine’s leaves have central veins facing the viewer, like a rubber plant; the plant’s overall shape is mirrored in the shape of the branches of the background plants. The grass, for its part, was trampled pell-mell and lying strewn about.  Here and there it was apparent that the grass had been added in after the painting was almost finished; in the lower left corner of the painting, there are some grass stems that are nearly vertical, which are cut off by a horizontal blade of grass, and which never resolve into points, nor are they properly sized to have resolved into points behind the obscuring leaf. Likewise, under the spear shaft, there are some grass blades with oddly pointed tips; these appear to have been painted in after the spear, when the artist decided that the space below the spear was too empty.


The scene seems to take place at day, but it is somewhat hard to tell. On the one hand, the celestial body is large, round and white, with a highlight in a crescent shape. On the other hand, the sky is a very light blue, the spherical shape of the sun could explain the imagined highlights, and day light would explain some of the color transitions on the main subjects: for example, the horse transitions from dark brown that’s almost black near the hind legs to a light brown near the head, and the tiger has yellow-golden highlights along it’s spine. However, the stylization and lack of physical accuracy throughout the rest of the painting suggests that Rousseau had imagined the whole scene, and in the imagination any of these details suggesting the day could similarly apply to the night if creatively seen, and the reverse is true as well. All the leaves and branches in the jungle, with the exception of the “pompom” poofs at the top of the second row of plants, droop downwards. The background plants are actually layered; the first layer contains a number of plants that look like the branching foremost vine. These plants are incredibly common in the picture, and the entirety of the plant above ground can be seen. The next layer of plants back, only the top is visible, and the top looks a little like a pompom, firework, or flower. Both of these layers are very formulaic in shape. The last layer, farthest back, there are a three different types of plants whose tops are just visible beyond the ‘pompoms’; these are the least common plants in the picture.


Comparing the different elements to each other, I noticed a lot of similarity in form. The rumples of the fallen man’s clothes mirror the wrinkles in the tiger’s head and neck, while the flow of the long portion of the horse’s mane mirrors the tiger’s spine. The hat of the attacking man is the same shape as the tiger’s eye, and his clothes’ folds mirror the grass points below the spear shaft. The man’s spear tip is the same color as the tiger’s claws and teeth; both fighters are equally dangerous. Despite this, for some reason the tiger reminded me of the lion from “The Sleepy Gypsy”, a painting that I only just learnt was also by Henri Rousseau. Throughout it all, periodically I would be reminded of the opening to “The Tyger”, by William Blake: “Tyger!/Tyger!/Burning bright/In the forests of the night,/ what immortal hand or eye/ could frame thy fearful symmetry?”