Although born in Cairo, Henri Emilien Rousseau is considered a French Orientalist, having split his time between North Africa and France. It was in Cairo, where his father was an esteemed member of the Ottoman public works administration, that Rousseau began his career as an illustrator. With the opportunities his father's work afforded the artist, he soon moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and trained in the studio of the great Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. He yearned to be back in North Africa however, and from 1901 returned there repeatedly, most notably between 1920 and 1932 when his studies were particularly intensive. When Rousseau found his own style however, the clean and formulaic lines of Gérôme evaded his works, and were replaced by the frenetic and quick strokes much like those of his earlier days as an illustrator.
While some Orientalist painters imagined their subjects from afar, Rousseau was thoroughly immersed in the society that fascinated him from childhood. The artist took part in the grand tradition of Orientalism as he was an admirer of the noble Arabs. His universe was filled with grand Caïds, Arabian horses, and lion hunts. His sketchbook from Morocco in 1930 contains magnificent sketches of tigers and lions. His drawings are characterized by fiery and nervous lines, obviously fit for the strength of his felines and recall the drawings, watercolors and paintings of Antoine-Louis Barye and Eugène Delacroix.
Rousseau's great familiarity with his subjects and their surroundings allowed him to create highly accurate works, characterized by a great attention to detail made possible by the artist's close and direct observations. This sets Rousseau's work apart from that of the more traditional Orientalists, whose pictures draw on fanciful imagination and picturesque scenes rather than realistic depictions of North African life. Having befriended many Caïds, or local chiefs, in order to explore various areas in the Rif and Atlas mountains, Rousseau was well acquainted with this life. This is reflected in his paintings of chieftains, falconers, hunting parties and desert caravans. Falconry in particular plays an important role, as it has aristocratic, regal, and sacred associations, and a history in Morocco dating back to the Middle Ages. It encapsulates the timeless majesty which Rousseau strove to capture in his art. The Moroccan falcon (or 'El Hor' - the noble one - as it is known) retains its importance to this day, as the Lekouassem falconers showcase their art at the great traditional festivities, the moussem, of Moulay Abdallah.