“Un soir de carnival” has always been for me one of the most enigmatic paintings produced by Henri Rousseau. A seemingly typical moonlit landscape is inhabited by two figures, supposedly on their way to a costume ball. Or are they lost in a forest? And, are they unaware of the shadowy cabin in the background, with a ghostlike face staring out at this scene?
The majority of his other landscapes depict exotic and naïve scenes and situations that invite us in to his personal and fantastical world. This painting, however, relies upon all of the same elements and yet it is disturbing. The unfamiliar? The threatening? The dark and looming landscape?
“At intervals during his steady production of works that record the mutual attunement of landscape and the human figure, Rousseau painted canvases that surpass both landscape and portraiture. All are large compositions in which a distinct feeling of awe and catastrophe has intensified his style without basically modifying it. Their thematic content is uniform: in either a totally barren or an unnaturally verdant countryside, a living creature confronts a mysterious presence. Rousseau did not himself separate these paintings from the rest of his production, yet in them he contrives to express an almost undefinable experience.”[i]
This is how Roger Shattuck describes some of these qualities in Rousseau’s work, especially a handful of larger and more enigmatic paintings. This feeling has not been lost on the poet Linda Pasten in her collection titled, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems which includes several ekphrastic examples including: “Le Sens de la Nuit, Magritte, 1927,” and “Still Life,” and a “Detail from the Altarpiece at Ghent.”
Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas
“Despite the enormous evening sky
spreading over most of the canvas,
its moon no more
than a tarnished coin, dull and flat,
in a devalued currency;
despite the trees, so dark themselves,
stretching upward like supplicants,
utterly leafless; despite what could be
a face, rinsed of feeling, aimed
in their direction,
the two small figures
at the bottom of this picture glow
bravely in their carnival clothes,
as if the whole darkening world
were dimming its lights for a party.”[ii]
[i] Shattuck, Roger; The Banquet Years; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House; New York, New York; 1968; p. 91.
[ii] Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 39.