Take One Picture: children inspired by Henri Rousseau’s Surprised!

Surprised 1891 Henri Rousseau 1844 – 1910 oil on canvas

This summer, the National Gallery will showcase children’s artworks in the annual Take One Picture exhibition, with pupils across the country having taken inspiration from Rousseau’s Surprised!

For nearly thirty years, the Gallery has been inviting primary school children nationwide to focus on one painting from the collection and respond creatively, following their own questions and ideas, and this year’s program has been the biggest yet: 300 schools took part – more than a 60% increase from last year. The program aims to put art at the center of children’s learning across the curriculum, inspiring creativity, curiosity, and a lifelong connection with artists’ work. By exhibiting a selection of the projects produced, the program also provides a platform for celebrating children’s work, building pride and confidence in their achievements, and fostering a sense of ownership and belonging in the Gallery.

This year’s painting, Rousseau’s Surprised!, is perennially one of the Gallery’s top 20 most popular and visited paintings. Rousseau produced the work without ever leaving his native France; the foliage is a mix of domestic house plants and tropical varieties, which he had seen at the Botanical Gardens in Paris. An amateur artist who painted as a hobby and failed to get serious recognition from his contemporaries, Rousseau is now seen as a pioneer of the “naïve art” movement.

Year 4 at Langland Community School, Milton Keynes, were drawn to the tiger’s worried expression and wondered if he was in danger from poachers. The children researched the endangerment of tigers and their habitat through deforestation and wrote speeches to persuade people to save the world’s tigers. Reflecting on the class’s adoption of a tiger through a conservation charity, one child said, “I felt so proud that we could help out animals in the rainforest,” while another said, “The project has made me more interested in and appreciative of art.”

When children in Reception at Wembrook Primary School, Warwickshire, were asked why the painting might be called Surprised!, one child thought it was “because the tiger is scared – not all surprises are nice.” The class discussed emotions in circle time, practiced different facial expressions in mirrors, and shared times they had been surprised. The children used photos of their surprised faces in their artwork, hidden behind careful drawings of leaves inspired by local plants. The school’s art lead said, “We are extremely proud of the efforts of the children and their artistic talents. For some of the children, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit an art gallery; to visit London and to have their own work on display is a once in a lifetime opportunity for them.”

This year’s exhibition space takes the display outside the walls of the Gallery and into Trafalgar Square, running alongside Summer on the Square, creating the Free Festival of Art, made by children for children. Since 2020, Summer on the Square has introduced families and children to the Gallery’s art and new ways of looking at it through artistic and creative workshops. The program has been extremely successful in attracting new audiences to the Gallery: last year, 30% of those who attended had never before visited the Gallery, and 80% of families who took part reported feeling creatively inspired afterward.

Karen Eslea, Head of Learning and National Programmes at the National Gallery, said, “Both Take One Picture and Summer on the Square are brilliant ways for us to reach children and help them develop an early knowledge and curiosity around art and give them a sense of ownership of the Gallery. We’re delighted to be bringing this year’s exhibition out onto Trafalgar Square, and it’s been amazing to see the different things that have inspired children this year, from the animals’ environments to the physical feel of the foliage.”

Feature image: Surprised! (1891), Henri Rousseau (1844 – 1910), oil on canvas