Henri ROUSSEAU | War [La guerre]

France 1844 – 1910

[La guerre]
c. 1894
oil on canvas
canvas 114.0 (h) x 195.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1946
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / All rights reserved

A wild woman riding a galloping horse across an apocalyptic landscape personifies Henri Rousseau’s vision of War. This wasteland is littered with dismembered bodies that have fallen in battle on the stone-covered fields. Opportunistic crows fly in for the pickings under a threatening teal-blue sky scattered with fluffy pink clouds made toxic by acrid yellow.

War, mounted on her threatening steed, waves a sword and the torch of destruction in her arms. She blackens a tree as she passes and another in front of her fractures, awaiting fire and obliteration. The figure’s black hair seems to grow out of the horse’s mane and it flies behind her as does the horse’s tail. She is no war goddess, but an ominous figure derived from humanity’s worst instincts, victorious in her pursuit of death over life.

Rousseau depicts the horse as one of the four ridden by the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations. By 1894 when this work was completed, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge had shown that a horse’s four hooves do not leave the ground in this manner during the galloping movement. Even so, Rousseau chose to portray the elongated horse as a dramatic form stretching across his painting.

Like all of Rousseau’s works, War received controversial reviews when first exhibited. The artist was very much affected by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, including the siege of Paris, which destroyed the city council or Commune that had ruled Paris for two months in 1871. Amputees were commonplace in the city of Paris following these conflicts.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay