Georges Henri Rouault was born May 27, 1871, in the cellar of a house in Belleville, a working class quarter of Paris near the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The city was at that moment being bombarded by government troops from Versailles, who were putting down the Paris Commune. His mother encouraged his love for the arts. His father was an artisan – a finisher and varnisher of pianos in the Pleyel factory. He was also a follower of the Catholic democrat Lammenais who sent his son to a Protestant school in disgust when Lammenais was condemned by the Pope. Rouault’s grandfather was in his own way equally remarkable: he was an employee in the postal service and a modest collector – he bought Callot engravings, lithographs by Daumier and reproductions of paintings by Rembrandt.
The Protestant school was not a success, and in 1885 at the age of fourteen, Rouault was taken away and apprenticed for two years to a maker of stained glass named Tamoni. He was then employed by another stained glass maker, Georges Hirsch, who did some restoration work on medieval windows, which gave his young assistant a chance to examine them and to realize their superiority to modern work. This early experience as a glass painter has been suggested as a likely source of the heavy black contouring and glowing colours, likened to leaded glass, which characterize Rouault’s mature painting style.
Gustave Moreau, Self Portrait,1850.
From 1885 onwards, during his apprenticeship, Rouault also studied at evening classes at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, and in 1891 he was able to transfer himself to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he entered Elie Delaunay’s studio. Delaunay died the following year, and it was Rouault’s good luck that his successor was Gustave Moreau, one of the leading Symbolists. Moreau immediately became a progressive influence in the school; his pupils included Matisse, Marquet, Evenepoel and Manguin, but it was Rouault who was his closest disciple.
The Way to Calvary, 1891, Georges Rouault
In 1891 Rouault painted “The Way to Calvary”. From 1895 on, he took part in major public exhibitions notably the Salon d’Automne (which he helped to found), where paintings with religious subjects, landscapes and still lifes were shown. During this period Rouault’s ambitions were still conventional. He set himself to win the Prix de Rome, but failed on two occasions despite Moreau’s encouragements. He did, however, manage to win some minor prizes, and he exhibited his work for the first time, sending it to the conservative Salon des Artistes Francais. In 1898 Moreau died, and there was an immediate vendetta within the Ecole des Beaux Arts against his more ‘advanced’ disciples. Rouault might have been put in a precarious position but was rescued by being offered a curatorship of the Gustave Moreau Museum which was set up under the terms of his teacher’s will. He still endeavoured to maintain some links with the academic art world for example, he exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition of French art held in connection with the Paris Exposition Universel of 1900, and was awarded a bronze medal. Nevertheless, the period was one of discouragement.
Riders in the Twilight, 1904, Georges Rouault
Rouault’s early work was influenced by his teacher as well as by the artist’s fascination for medieval art. Both never ceased having a great influence on the artist’s work. In 1901 he spent some time at the Benedictine Abbey of Liguge in Poitou, where the novelist J. K. Huysmans was endeavouring to form a religious community of artists. The experiment was brought to an end by the law against religious congregations introduced by the anti clerical French government of the time. It was at this point that Rouault claimed he had the good fortune to find himself as a painter, but to have been quite unconscious of what was happening to him: It was not the influence of Lautrec, Degas or the moderns which made me experiment with a new style, but interior necessity, or the wish – maybe inconsistent – not to be trapped by conventional religious subjects. From around 1902 the artist still made watercolours and gouaches in expressive colours, which founded his reputation as a Fauvist painter. Early subjects, such as workers and farmers reflect the French artist’s strong moral engagement.
Circus Act, 1905, Georges Rouault
Georges Rouault also met Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, and Charles Camoin. These friendships brought him to the movement of Fauvism, the leader of which was considered to be Matisse. In 1905 he exhibited his paintings at the Salon d’Automne with the other Fauvists. While Matisse represented the reflective and rationalized aspects in the group, Rouault embodied a more spontaneous and instinctive style. His use of stark contrasts and emotionality is credited to the influence of the artwork of Vincent van Gogh. His characterizations of overemphasized grotesque personalities inspired the expressionist painters.
Nude with raised arm,1906, Georges Rouault
Rouault committed himself to the Modernist party, and in 1903 was one of the founders of the Salon d’Automne. Equally significant was his meeting with the radical Catholic writer Leon Bloy. He was especially struck by Bloy’s novel La Femme Pauvre, published in 1897, and in 1904, the author reported rather complacently in his diary: ‘My book has touched him to the quick, and left a wound that will never heal. I tremble to think of the sufferings in store for the unfortunate man.’ In fact their understanding was in many respect imperfect and required great tolerance on Rouault’s part, as Bloy had no eye for modern art and detested Rouault’s interpretations of his characters. Seeing the three works by Rouault in the Salon d’Automne of 1905, which used imagery drawn from his own creation, Bloy recorded sadly: ‘Bourgeois foulness has wrought so violent and horrified a reaction in him that his art seems to have received the death blow.’ The phase immediately before the First World War was one of transition for Rouault. He experimented with glazed ceramics, a path he did not pursue; he travelled a little he went to visit Bruges; and he married. His wife was Marthe Le Sidaner, sister of the painter Henri Le Sidaner, and she was to be a constant support for the rest of his life.
Clown, 1907, Georges Rouault
In 1907, Rouault commenced a series of paintings dedicated to courts, clowns and prostitutes. These paintings are interpreted as moral and social criticism. He became attracted to Spiritualism and the dramatic existentialism of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who remained a close friend for the rest of his life. After that, he dedicated himself to religious subjects. Human nature was always the focus of his interest. Rouault said: “A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human.”
Clown, 1912, Georges Rouault
In 1910, Rouault had his first works exhibited in the Druet Gallery. His works were studied by German artists from Dresden, who later formed the nucleus of expressionism. Despite a successful one man show at the Druet Gallery in 1910, Rouault was often very poor. In 1910 or 1911 (the sources differ) he moved to Versailles where he inhabited a miserable, rat infested house in an old quarter of the town. On one occasion he went to tell his landlord, who was a veterinary surgeon, that he intended to complain to the local Committee for Public Health. ‘It’ll do you no good,’ said the landlord complacently, ‘I’m the chairman.’ During the Versailles years Rouault did a series of watercolours of low life subjects, including a series of paintings of prostitutes. These were apparently inspired by a single glimpse of a woman seen leaning out of a door, and Rouault was later careful to explain how the pictures came into being:
I am not a specialist in brothel subjects … The woman I saw in the doorway is not the woman I painted. She and the rest corresponded to the emotional state I was in at the time.
Plate 1, Miserere
In 1916 Rouault left Versailles and in 1917 he signed a contract with the famous dealer Ambroise Vollard which was to provide him with freedom to work for many years. Rouault agreed to give Vollard everything he produced in return for a salary; Vollard even went so far as to provide him with a studio on the top floor of his own house, where he could work undisturbed. As the artist was later to discover, there were certain drawbacks to this arrangement. Vollard was a jealous patron – he liked to monopolize the work of the artists he favoured and to keep it from prying eyes. The result was that for twenty years people judged Rouault by old work, rather than by what he was producing currently. Vollard had a passion for fine illustrated books, and it was natural that he should encourage Rouault to turn in this direction. During the first decade of their association Rouault concentrated mainly on graphic work: during this period he produced the plates for Misere, which is generally considered his finest achievement.
Plate 2, Jesus Reviled
From 1917, Rouault dedicated himself to painting. The Christian faith informed his work in his search for inspiration and marks him out as perhaps the most passionate Christian artist of the 20th century: first of all, in the theme of the passion of Christ. The face of Jesus and the cries of the women at the feet of the cross are symbols of the pain of the world, which for Rouault was relieved by belief in resurrection. Some attention did come his way from outside: there was a scattering of exhibitions; in 1921 the first monograph on his work was published; in 1924 there was a retrospective at the Druet Gallery, where he had shown before; and he was awarded the Legion of Honour. In 1926 he published his book Souvenirs intimes, and in 1929 Diaghilev commissioned him to design his last major project, The Prodigal Son, with music by Prokofiev and choreography by Balanchine.
Crucifixion,1920, Georges Rouault
In 1930 Rouault began to exhibit in foreign countries, mainly in London, New York and Chicago. In 1937 Rouault painted “The Old King” — arguably his very finest expressionist work. It was not until 1937 that Rouault’s reputation took a great stride forward: forty two paintings, all in a style which was relatively ‘new’ for the critics and public but long established so far as the artist himself was concerned, were shown as part of the large ‘Exposition des Artistes Independents’, staged in connection with the Paris Exposition Universelle.
The Old King, 1937, Georges Rouault
In 1939 Vollard was killed in an accident and the artist was thus released from his contract. It left behind it an important question: what was to happen to the great mass of unfinished work which was now in the possession of Vollard’s heirs? In 1947 Rouault brought a suit against them to recover this material. Rouault had always been very concerned with the artist’s rights over his own creation. In 1943 he wrote: “I sometimes dream, in these last years of my life, of upholding a thesis at the Sorbonne on the spiritual defence of works of art and the artist’s rights before the law, and the ways and means of securing these rights, so that those who come after us may be better protected.” He succeeded perhaps better than he had hoped. He asked the courts for the return of 800 unfinished and unsigned paintings which had remained in Vollard’s possession at the time of his death, and his right to them was eventually conceded. He only failed to recover those which had already been sold. In November 1948, to make his point quite clear, he ceremonially burned before witnesses 315 of the canvases he had recovered. Rouault’s reputation was not damaged by the war. He had already had a few exhibitions abroad in the 1930s, and in 1940-41 there were Rouault retrospectives in Boston, Washington and San Francisco. In the immediately post-war period his sometimes sombre vision was in tune with the times. There was a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1945, and another, shared with Braque, at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1946. in 1948 he exhibited at the Venice Biennale and travelled to Italy for the first time. He exhibited his cycle Miserere in 1948
At the end of his life he burned 300 of his pictures (estimated to be worth today about more than half a billion francs). His reason for doing this was not profound, as he simply felt he would not live to finish them. When his eightieth birthday was celebrated at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in 1951, the celebrations were organized by the Centre Catholique des Intellectuels Francais. But the French state honoured him too: he was promoted to the rank of Commander of the Legion of Honour. In the 1950s, what had been a trickle of retrospective exhibitions became a flood, and when Rouault died in February 1958, he was given a state funeral.
Christ on the Cross, 1920, Georges Rouault
The Expressionist View
I know that ever since I have been exploring art (over thirty years now) and seeking to understand what and who influenced me and my way of creating art, I seem to have always been drawn to Georges Rouault. I’ve never understood his work ( because in the past – before the easy flow of information on the internet – it has seemed to be difficult to find information on Rouault other than his images). This blog post is my attempt to strengthen my understanding of Rouault, his life, times, influences and art.
Georges Rouault: Head of Christ or Christ Mocked, 1905
Rouault said this of his Art:
“Art, the art I aspire to, will be the most profound, the most complete, the most moving expression of what man feels when he finds himself face to face with himself and with humanity. Art should be a disinherited, passionate confession, the translation of the inner life, as it used to be in the old days in the hands of our admirable anonymous Frenchman who sculpted the figures on the cathedrals”.
Georges Rouault: Are we not all slaves? 1920-1929,
I know that his work, this expression is not for everyone. Yet it draws me and compels me… draws me into his human experience, life being lived which is not always pretty or neat and many times very messy and confusing/frustrating. In a contemporary sense Rouault is much like listening to Bob Dylan; one may like his lyrics but hate hearing his voice. I tend to be drawn to both because of the passion in which both approach their art.
Head of Christ, 1937, Georges Rouault
My only objective is to paint a Christ so moving that those who see him will be converted. Georges Rouault
Joel Klepac relates a story of his experience with this painting:
This past summer I visited Cleveland’s Museum of Art in hopes of seeing George Rouault’s painting, “Head of Christ.” Rouault is one of my heroes and this painting, though I had seen it only in reproductions, one of my favorites. To my great sorrow, I discovered the painting was in storage. Unwilling to give up, I decided to talk to the receptionist to see if I might be allowed to view it anyway. “I live in Romania,” I explained, “and visit America only once a year. I came especially to see Rouault’s work. He is the main reason that I myself am an artist.” Miracles happen. She looked at me as if I might be a future Picasso whose artistic growth depended upon seeing this painting. To my astonishment, she was able to arrange a time two days later when staff would bring the three-by-four foot “Head of Christ” out of storage. Not only that. They would also show me the Rouault prints in the museum’s archives.
When I returned to the museum, Rouault’s entire Miserere et Guerre series was brought out for me to see. I had seen shows with twenty or so of these large black-and-white prints, but never imagined that one day the whole series of a hundred prints would be placed in my hands for a private viewing.
Plate 35: Jesus will be in agony, even to the end of the world
Rouault worked for nine years on these etchings. They describe the human misery he experienced in Paris – probing portraits, ironic faces of clowns trapped in inner misery, the life of prostitutes, injustice in the courts. There is a print of the Baptism of Christ showing the descent of the Spirit just above the blessing hand of John over the gracefully formed figure of Christ. I also found the print of Doubting Thomas placing his hands in the side of Christ that I had seen years before and still vividly remembered. And there was the strangely quiet crucifixion, where Christ’s arms reach beyond the margins of the paper like an umbrella over the tear shaped mourners below. Within all the gently worked blacks and grays, light penetrates even the darkest scenes.
As I walked out of the room I felt lighter. It seemed as if Rouault understood the suffering we see daily on the streets in Romania, and yet saw its redemption.
Next I was escorted into a large shared office where Rouault’s “Head of Christ” had been carted to wait for me, placed on a chair. At first I experienced the disorienting feeling of suddenly being face-to-face with a celebrity, but little by little the painting opened its doors. Deep blues and greens, reds, smears of black, and yellows are piled together; years of tortured layers a half inch thick in some areas. Christ’s head is slightly tilted. He has an elongated nose and small mouth, and the ears almost disappear in the black outlines of the head. But it is His eyes that were most startling. In those 45 minutes, Christ’s eyes pierced me. Somehow gathered behind them were all the tears of the boys on the street of Romania whom I have come to know, all that inner pain, those graphic histories of abandonment, mocking, and abuse. And here I also saw my own poverty, my loneliness, fear and lost relationships. There is nothing of the cheap plastic smile that one finds on so many sentimentalized images of Christ. Rouault’s Christ looks me in the eyes until he finally has my attention, and says, “I suffer with you. I love you.”
I first became aware of Rouault’s work thanks to William Dyrness’s book, George Rouault, A Vision of Suffering and Salvation. Dyrness’s thesis is that the Christian artist is a person who unites a vision of the world’s suffering with a vision of its redemption.
Christ the Doctor, Georges Rouault
In his work and life, Rouault did not turn a blind eye to the suffering around him. The plight of the prostitutes living next door to him in his early years always haunted him, as did dark smoke-filled war scenes, the harsh faces of politicians and judges denying justice to the poor, and his own hunger pangs as a young artist struggling to survive. He experienced suffering in his own body, but also empathetically through contact with the world at the dawn of the twentieth century. For Rouault art was not a flight from reality into the nirvana-like dreamlands one often finds in Christian bookstores. Through his art he embraced the suffering enough to see the seeds of redemption growing in its muddy soil. By doing this he gives the world a body of work which serves as a reminder that the light of Christ truly does comprehend and pierce even the deepest darkness.
Landscape, Georges Rouault
I love the story that Klepac relates in his seeking to know and understand what Rouault was saying through his art. I know the times I have been fortunate enough to see Rouault’s work in Cleveland and in Pittsburgh; it has been a moving experience, almost sacred in the fact that I am able to physically participate in the actual view of an image that has moved me and, to an extent, haunted me with the presence of who and what it depicts. Maybe that is the gift of art and the mission of expressionism?
Georges Rouault,Nocturne (Gethsemane), 1915 (repainted 1939)
Rouault’s work expresses the time he lived in, and yet it transcends the twentieth century; it speaks to the human condition, which is not always pretty. Paul Zalonski states that Rouault’s work not only has the power to please the eye and feed the mind, but to quicken our attention to the moral and spiritual dimension of human experience and to help move us to a higher plane of consciousness. I guess that is why I am continually drawn back to his work…the work moves the viewer to a new place, a deeper understanding of the human condition.
Clown tragique, 1911, Georges Rouault
Rouault has been quoted as saying, “There is no sacred art, there is just art pure and simple.” I guess that is how I would sum up his work – powerful, expressive art reflecting on the human condition. What more can be asked of an artist or their body of work.