Henri Rousseau is one of my favorite painters. I saw this painting, The Dream at the MoMA when I was about 8 or 9 and I had a very strong reaction to it.
The Dream epitomizes Rousseau’s technique of unexpected juxtapositions, predating the Surrealists, before the style was in fashion. He liked to joke that he’d been born in the wrong century. His contemporaries playfully called him Le Douanier after his lifelong career as a customs officer.
In the painting, the moon denies the movement of the sun, the succession of day to night. Like dream, the painting exists in a state removed from time. By 1910, when Rousseau painted The Dream, just months before his death, people understood dreams as falling within one of three types of wish fulfillment, all involving elements of disguise. In the first class, the wish is presented in successful disguise and the sleeper enjoys a pleasant dream. In the second, the disguise is unsuccessful or absent. The forbidden desire emerges causing anxiety, and the sleeper wakes up disturbed. The third class of dream presents content that is disturbing, but the feeling is not. In this manifestation, the wish is disguised by a misalliance and juxtaposition of content and feeling.