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Henri Rousseau Painting: a War Critique Or Discord Ride?

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Henri Rousseau’s War, or the Ride of Discord, 1894 is a notable post-impressionist piece that ought to be summed up in the infamous words of Shakespeare, ‘hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.’ In the foreground, a woman is portrayed, seemingly primitive in appearance, right in the middle of the painting as She wields a sword in one hand and what looks to be a torch in another. She is cutting down scores of men and setting the trees ablaze as she rides on the back of a black horse in the midst of a leap. In the background, a mountain stands tall and firm, overseeing the massacre as it unfolds. Quite the horrific scene, this painting offers a glimpse into the mind of Rousseau and what he meant to convey to the viewer. Rousseau’s intent is to reverse the gender roles often established by society for men and women; males often seen embodying concepts such as violence and death, and women the meek-and-mild victims of the long-standing patriarchy, Rousseau switches it up and puts a woman, in Her fury, up on Her high horse as the men get sent to the chopping block.

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Formally, Rousseau uses an assortment of dazzling colors in such a manner that every object stands out on its own. Rousseau’s brushstroke is light and soft to the touch, ensuring that the surface texture of the painting remains smooth and that no detail is lost in the process, such as the distribution of hair on all the figures in the scene, woman and dead men alike, or the fine details in the changing weather. War dressed in white atop Her dusk stallion, as they eclipse the baby blue and bright yellow-orange of the horizon during a sunset, the pale tan and blue of the deceased scattered across the pebbled mountain with the scarlet red of the blood spatter all make for excellent stark contrasts against the background and one another. In regard to lighting, there is plenty of it within the painting so much so that even the thin cracks in tree branches and the realism of the body parts can be distinguished by the naked eye.

Geometrically, the painting can be divvied up into a series of squares, circles and rectangles that, when fit together, create this masterpiece. Spatially, all the objects in the painting are relatively equal in size, proportion and scale, except for the ravens as add-ons to the overarching idea of War as the harbinger of death and destruction. War riding horseback and the litter of dead bodies along with the broken trees are more or less the same size, but the ravens are proportional with their diminutive stature. Since this, all objects are integral to how the scene plays out. Following this, the colors and shapes complement one another in a collaborative effort to showcase Rousseau’s style of primitivism. Two-dimensionally, the painting is no more than a well-illustrated scene right out of a nightmare. However, three-dimensionally, one can only imagine the sheer terror of being stuck between the maiden of War and Her enemies, a terror Rousseau exhibits in the position of War’s arms and legs in a threatening manner, coupled with the arrangement of the cadavers across the boneyard, arms and legs outstretched and contorted, limbs torn to pieces by the crows.

Concentrating on the scene itself, there is a transition taking place as War, in the person of the primitive woman on horseback, leaps from the left side of the image to the right. Having cut down all the men in her path, she sets the tree in the left field on fire, but the one on the right still remains disbranched, yet to meet the flames of War. Also, the weather appears to shift, with the clouds on the right look to be clumping together as a storm brews, meanwhile the clouds on the left are diverging as if a storm has just passed. With respect to the time of day, the hour of night is coming close as the sun sets on the horizon. Sunsets, occurring in the west, are traditionally associated with evil and death, right on the nose with what’s transpiring in the scene Lastly, there’s the placement of the dismembered bodies littered across this gory scene. Left in War’s wake, the cadavers on the left look to have been there for quite some time as indicated by the bluish skin tone of the man directly beneath War, he looks to be entering rigor mortis a lot sooner than those yet to face her wrath. Even the ravens aren’t done picking at the bones before moving on to fresher meat on the right, with more of these scavengers on the left than right.

Narrowly, War in the person of this primitive woman as she wields instruments of utter destruction is a fascinating study on what necessarily entails savagery. One minor detail that differentiates Her from the men, aside from still being alive, is the fact that She is dressed, and the men, for the most part are completely nude, with the exception of the same decomposing man beneath her. Not only is She clothed, but the whiteness of Her dress ordinarily signifies innocence, or in sexual terms a woman’s virginity. Perhaps She was violated in some way, and through her transformation into War was able to take back control of her life and deprive the men of theirs in the process. Or maybe there’s an irony attached to her dress, as someone capable of slaughtering a horde of men is hardly innocent in any sense of the word. Her facial expression comes across as fiendish and bloodthirsty with her grin of razor sharp teeth, and her hair untamed and unkempt, as if she just crawled right out of a cave.

Conclusively, Henri Rousseau’s intentions behind War, or the Ride of Discord is to reorganize the social norms of his day in the context of the painting’s battle scene, and does so through his incorporation of a variety of shapes, colors, and imagery to carry his message of gender equality, granted in the context of a woman butchering every man in sight, but nonetheless indicates his desire to express his own view of women as tougher, physically and mentally, than men ever could be, and just as willing to go to the same lengths men do to prove themselves worthy of equal standing. War as a woman isn’t meant to degrade women as savage, uncivilized creatures that will go on a killing spree if left unchecked; instead, She is meant to show that female inferiority is a myth perpetuated by men in power.

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