The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo by Henri Rousseau

This art blog on Rousseau’s The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo includes:

  • Bottoms up bananas – reality is overrated
  • Fight? What Fight?
  • Rousseau’s self esteem
  • Flowers and animals paired in The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo
  • Jungle mystery

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Henri Rousseau creates a sense of play – not battle – in The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo. His singular style suits this particular fancy. That’s because Rousseau brings us into his world without much regard for the “real” one. He paints fantasy. But one that only he could imagine. There’s nobody quite like Rousseau. His vision includes upside down banana bunches. So, we know it’s unlikely he ever saw a banana tree in person. In fact, Rousseau claimed to have visited the jungle. But we now know he’d only ever been to zoos and botanical gardens. Given his bananas, he likely went to the farmer’s market as well.

French painter Henri Rousseau didn’t care much about fruit growth patterns. But The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo works as a meticulous quilt of systematic color and shape. The stalks of grass and leaves weave into a magical green tapestry. Rousseau highlights this natural scene with bits of color to imbue light into the jungle. One of the reasons I like this particular Rousseau so much is that shadowy heart in the middle. He uses dark greens to create depth at the center of the painting. It gives the impression of a heart beating right above the entwined animals in the grass.

Though unschooled, Rousseau made up for it with abundant confidence and vision. He stands out in Art History for his distinctive style. His foliage and animals are unmistakable. Time has been kind to Rousseau and his work graces the world’s finest museums now. But when he created this and his other jungle paintings, many of his peers mocked him.

It was the beginning of the 20th century. Middle-aged Rousseau reeked of uncool amateurism among his painter peers in Paris. In fact, a young Picasso and his bros made fun of Rousseau who worked at a tollgate. They called him Le Douanier, which actually means customs officer, and laughed at him. This had little impact on Rousseau’s belief in himself as a painter. He referred to himself as one of the two greatest artists of the era. The other, he demurred, was Picasso. This points to the importance of self esteem for an artist. Turns out it can make all the difference.

Parallel Symbols Create Connections

Henri Rousseau filled The Fight of a Tiger and Buffalo with careful order. His balanced composition shows a lot of thoughtful planning. Notice how the bright yellow bananas encircle the painting’s shady core. They emphasize the depth at the heart of this masterpiece. This creates distance within the jungle. There’s also mystery because we can’t know how far back it goes. It’s how Rousseau gives this setting perspective. He also creates a sense of movement with leaf sizing. The different leaf lengths create motion. Our eyes start with large leaves that frame the scene. Then tiny yellow leaves mirror the banana bunches and draw our view toward the alleged fight.

It’s more like a cuddle. But The Fight of a Tiger and Buffalo may be almost over. The tiger stands in the alpha position. It could even be biting the buffalo’s neck. Though that takes a bit of imagination from us. Rousseau only gives us the suggestion. Without the title, this would appear more like a nuzzle. The gentle beauty of the surroundings also make it feel like a soft impression – a love bite. These animals seem more innocent than embattled. There’s a parallel in the two pink flowers sprouting from leaves in the sky. This painting holds only two sets of pairs. The animal pair matches the sensual blossoms above.

Flowers symbolize delicate beauty and vulnerability. That’s because their loveliness can’t last long. They represent the ephemeral nature of youth and physical beauty. This ties in with innocence. Though Rousseau titled this The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo, he doesn’t portray them fighting. It does lead us to look closely at the animals. They’re bloodless, still, and dispassionate. So, where’s the fight? It could be that Rousseau sees an inherent fight in nature. After all, tigers and buffalo are natural born enemies. If they were to meet in the jungle, the tiger would, indeed, bite the buffalo.

But Henri Rousseau disregards the natural order of things. He ignores banana formations and animal instincts. Instead, viewers indulge in Rousseau’s world. It’s a lush scene where enemy animals wrestle like teenagers in the grass. Like the blossoms above, they represent transitory nature. One minute we see glorious beasts in the jungle. And in a flash they disappear. The mystery is what we saw in that moment. Was it a fight or mere play? With The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo Rousseau reminds us that we’ll never know.

The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo – FAQs

Why did Henri Rousseau paint The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo?

Rousseau was imprisoned for fraud when painting this masterpiece. In fact, the officials granted him an early release so that he could finish it for the Salon des Indépendants exhibition of March 1908. But Rousseau also expressed his love for plants and patterns with The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo. He drew inspiration from visits to the botanical gardens. In fact, he once said, “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream,” about his favorite place to wander – Jardin des Plantes.

So, there are three essential motives behind this painting. It literally got him out of jail. There was an imminent exhibition and thus an opportunity to sell it and make money. But beneath all that was his abiding love for botanicals. The glorious leafy patterns continue to inspire jungle fantasies even to this day. In fact, it was a Rousseau jungle painting that inspired the movie Madagascar*.

Why was Henri Rousseau an important painter?

Rousseau’s paintings have extraordinary charm. But so does his story. He’s an inspiration to all of us. That’s because he didn’t start painting seriously until he hit his 40s. Also, of course, Rousseau did so without any art education. It was his source of pride but also peer ridicule. Many called him out for painting “like a child”. But Rousseau’s work also holds its own among masterpieces. Even though his paintings can be perceived as flat, his ingenuity often adds levels of depth.

The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo sets a perfect example of this in action. It stimulates viewer imagination. That’s one of the most significant contributions Henri Rousseau brings to Art History. He reminded the art world that artists expand our horizons. They don’t merely depict our reality as is. Rousseau created a new version of reality for us instead. This rebellious act brought out a playful element in painting.

Eventually his peers developed appreciation for this. In 1908 Picasso threw a soiree in his honor. Called Le Banquet Rousseau, this party was “one of the most notable social events of the twentieth century,” wrote American poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin*. Rousseau died two years later. The eminent sculptor Brancusi attended his funeral and etched this poem into the tombstone:

We salute you Gentle Rousseau you can hear us.

Delaunay, his wife, Monsieur Queval and myself.

Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates of heaven.

We will bring you brushes paints and canvas.

That you may spend your sacred leisure in the

light and Truth of Painting.

As you once did my portrait facing the stars, lion and the gypsy.

Tombstone of Henri Julien Rousseau, Paris

What kind of painting is The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo?

Henri Rousseau developed his own style. This and his status as an unschooled painter put his work into the Naive Painting category. He’s also a French Post-Impressionist painter. But his paintings are quite different from other Post-Impressionist paintings. Naive Painting comes in a variety of styles and types. Rousseau’s work sits in its own subcategory.

Many Naive Paintings fit into the Folk Art subcategory. Unschooled artists like Rousseau painted them. But Folk Art suits a particular culture and/or has a practical use. One of the coolest aspects of Henri Rousseau’s work is how it lives in the world of imagination. There’s no cohesive cultural context for his work. Even his portraits are otherworldly.

ENJOYED THIS The Fight of a Tiger and a Buffalo ANALYSIS?

Check out these other essays on animal paintings.

Ronnberg, Ami, and Kathleen Martin. The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Taschen, 2010.

Henri Julien Rousseau Bio

Madagascar inspiration – Lisa Rosen (8 May 2005). “A jungle’s classic roots: Capturing The Style For ‘Madagascar’ Meant Going Past The ’50s to Artist Henri Rousseau“. Los Angeles Times.

Sister Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy’s American Collection, HarperCollins, 2000

Smith, Roberta (2006). “Henri Rousseau: In imaginary jungles, a terrible beauty lurks”The New York Times