The central monkeys in this painting grasp fishing rod style sticks, reminiscent of human leisure pursuits, suggesting the almost human experience of the primates. In this sense Rousseau’s apes can be seen not as true wild beasts, but rather as an escape from the ‘jungle’ of Paris and the daily grind. In an age of colonialism and grand tours, the media was peppered with images of westerners at ease in the jungle.
In this masterpiece, lush plants surround exotic animals. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that the foliage is not a realistic illustration of tropical vegetation. Instead, Rousseau used specimens from the Jardin des Plantes as his subject matter and wildly accentuated them to create his tropical paradise. The trees are in fact magnified ferns. The fiery orange lotuses rise high above the water, but in nature would float on the surface. The animals too are a blend of the real and the imaginary.
A brown macaque perches by a stream with a green bamboo-like pole beneath his legs. To its right two orange gibbons swing through the trees. Rousseau added tails to these normally tail-less animals. A black and white langur sits on a branch, scratching his head and fishing with a pole. Another black monkey of indeterminate species is seated on a branch peering at a dangerous serpent that slithers among the lotuses.
The monkeys depicted here are native to various parts of Africa and Asia so could only come together in fantasy or in a zoo. Uncovered in Rousseau’s studio at the time of his death was an illustrated book of exotic animals called Wild Beasts: Approximately 200 Amusing Illustrations Drawn from the Life of Animals, with an Instructive Text. It is thought that all five monkeys in the painting were inspired by images from this book.