'It’s telling that I think of it in a theatrical way. Overall, I’m attracted to the narrative. '

Surprised!, 1891, by Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau (1844–1910), 51in by 64in, National Gallery, London

Gina McKee says:
The colours in this painting are deeply appealing to me and the movement of the foliage in tropical winds gives it energy and force. The composition is so satisfying. The canopy of the trees arched over from left to right frames the image. The strong red leaves of the plant to the right are in harmony and balance with the tiger on the left, next to leaves with a hint of red, bringing it together. That bold dark-green plant—I almost said downstage left—punctuates the frame and he highlights the mood with lightning and silver rain. It’s telling that I think of it in a theatrical way. Overall, I’m attracted to the narrative. The invitation to absorb yourself in the image and enjoy letting your imagination create the story is captivating

Gina McKee is an actor. She is currently starring in Florian Zeller’s The Mother at the Tricycle Theatre, London (until March 5)

John McEwen comments on Surprised!:
Rousseau was always a Sunday painter—having to earn a living prevented him painting full-time until middle age. It was the poet Apollinaire who inaccurately nicknamed him Le Douanier, a customs inspector. In fact, he was a gabelou for the Paris Municipal Toll service, on patrol for smugglers 70 hours a week, a sabre in his belt. occasionally, he was allowed to paint in working hours.

In 1886, he took four of his pictures in a handcart to the Salon des Independants. This juryless salon, founded by the painter Paul Signac and his friends, proved Rousseau’s godsend. With two exceptions, he exhibited annually until his death. artistic acceptance gave him the confidence to retire from his job, aged 49, with the support of a pension, although he had to busk with his fiddle and never sold enough to pay off his art supplier.

The Independants gained him an artistic following long before the approval of critics. as something of a celebrity, from 1907, he defiantly held saturday soirées at his modest studio, attracting admiring younger artists, including Picasso and the accordion-playing Braque.

This is the earliest of his jungle pictures, derived from a children’s book illustration. In the original, the tiger stalks some explorers, a detail Rousseau cropped. It earned him his first favourable review, indicatively written by a painter, the swiss Félix Vallotton: ‘It’s the alpha and omega of painting and so disconcerting that the most firmly held convictions must be…brought up short by such self-sufficiency and childlike naïveté.’

The UK’s first Vallotton museum exhibition is scheduled for 2019 at the Royal Academy.