French Painter and Engraver
Summary of Georges Rouault
Though he joins the ranks of the major artists linked to the heroic avant-garde years Paris, Rouault cut something of a solitary figure amongst his peers. He nevertheless formed early career associations and friendships with Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Henri Manquin and Charles Camoin and this brought him into the fold of the Fauvists with whom he exhibited at their famous 1905 exhibition at the Salon d'Automne. However, his work carried strong elements of Expressionism, which had never found much favor outside of Scandinavia and Germany. By the beginning of the First World War Rouault was turning more and more away from watercolor and oil on paper towards oil and canvas and he applied his paint through thick, rich, layers which helped amplify his raw and bold forms. His colors, awash with deep blues, contained within heavy black lines, produced art that was reminiscent of stained glass windows and supported subject matter that became more overtly religious with a strong recurring theme of the power of redemption. The majority of his career was devoted to the human figure - specifically clowns, prostitutes and Christ - but during the last decade of his life his palette allowed for pastel shades of green and yellow to impinge on canvases that placed his figures in charming mystical landscapes.
- Unique amongst modernists, Rouault's artistic evolution was informed by a devout Catholic faith. Drawing on the ideas of religiously-inspired intellectuals of his time, Rouault looked towards symbolism and primary colors to express the core values of Catholicism; a highly unfashionable (and single-minded) worldview when one considers the progressive milieu in which he was working.
- As was the norm amongst modernists who wanted to represent the lives of "ordinary" workers, Rouault's prostitute paintings treated his sitters with a genuine, non-judgemental, empathy. Rouault represented his workers with an honest, unadorned, realism that allowed for (or, in his view, insisted upon) an emphasis on naked sensuality. He was thus able to eclipse the aims of his peers by the way he drew attention to the contradictions at play between his models' Rubenesque seductiveness and their societal exploitation.
- In an age of science and reason; and age in which faith was considered the philosophical property of only innocent minds, Rouault treated the figure of Jesus, not with irony, nor even distain, but rather as the true saviour of all mankind. His masterpiece is considered to be a book of 58 collated illustrations. Revealing the strong influence of German Expressionist woodcuts, Miserere (1922-1927) lays bare the stark spectacle of everyday human suffering with the figure of Christ presented in these pages as the redeemer of all the wretched souls.
- Towards the end of his career, Rouault produced a series of "biblical landscapes" (landscapes populated with religious figures). Unlike the earlier works of artists like Henri Matisse who explored the expressionist landscape via the "joie de vivre" of reveling freely in the physical sensation and direct experiences of nature, Rouault combined his flattened symbolic landscapes with classical influences thereby imbuing them with a spiritual aura that was wanting in the work of his contemporaries.
Biography of Georges Rouault
Georges-Henri Rouault was born in a cellar on May 27, 1871 during the tumultuous "Bloody Week" at the end of the Paris Commune. A stray shell struck the family home and the young expectant mother had to be moved into the cellar where she gave birth to her second child.
Important Art by Georges Rouault
The scene represents a fairground booth of the French version of the Aunt Sally game. The life-sized figures in the background are puppets to be knocked down by wooden balls that the lady in red in the foreground appears to be selling. The sign on the top of the figures that reads "La Noce A nini Patte en l'Air" indicates that the scene is supposed to be the wedding of Nini patte en l'air, a famous Moulin Rouge dancer. The watercolor is dark in tone. Lines are frenetic and sketchy which accentuates the angry atmosphere of the composition as a whole.
It is traditional that the puppets in the Aunt Sally game are based on local or national public figures. Here, Rouault chooses to comment on the anonymous bourgeois class by depicting a dazed and unanimated row of characters. The stylization of the puppets aggravates the caricature as we cannot differentiate the puppets from the human beings. The fun dimension of the game gives way to a grotesque and pathetic portrayal of the bourgeois classes. Moreover, the party here is supposed to be attending the wedding of a minor celebrity, which adds to the satirical depiction of the class who would look down on such festivities.
Rouault seems to have most empathy for the entertainer. Dressed in an ostentatious red dress, she is at the center of the scene and has a stern and deep glaze (unlike her bland counterparts). However, instead of attracting players, she seems melancholic and as bored as her puppets. The artist removes the shiny and lively side of the entertainment life and reveals a sadder and more somber angle. The work (made on paper) was first exhibited at the 1905 Salon d'Automne that premiered the Fauves group. It features the several themes that Rouault would depict during his future career: social criticism, entertainers, prostitution and leisure.
Prostitutes are a recurrent theme in the career of Rouault. Here, we have two seated women ("the sirens") waiting for customers. They are naked except for their fine jewelry and their coiffured hairstyles. The bright colors of their flesh contrast with the blueish background of the night and emphasize the coarseness of their large and saggy bodies. The women look bored and tired. However, one of the women could be smiling (probably at a potential client).
Rouault does not seek to condemn his models, but wishes to expose (and denounce) the harsh realities of their profession. Their exposed and raw flesh personifies the women's sad vulnerability as Rouault seeks to convey a sense of empathy towards these women. With gestural heavy black lines - that will soon become his signature style - he outlines the femininity of their curves. With warm color palette for the flesh, he emphasizes too the sensuality of their nudity. By naming them "sirens", moreover, Rouault recalls the witty caricatures of Daumier whom he admired, and accentuates the bitter contrast between the touching voluptuousness of these women and their social and moral exploitation.
This monumental work is considered by many to be Rouault's masterpiece. The artist started to work on it as early as 1912, preparing a book of drawings in Indian ink. In 1916, the "difficult" art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned a book of prints and Rouault decided to transfer these original drawings into copperplates that would later become the prints for Miserere. Originally conceived as a two-volume book, this publication contains 58 illustrations that fall into two sections: Miserere and Guerre (War). It was finished in 1927 but would not be published until 1948.
Many critics have praised Rouault for his mastery of the art of printing. The artist reworked these plates repeatedly over two decades using aquatint, etching, and engraving to achieve rich, blacks and grays to produce his heavily outlined figures. As Rouault stated in his Introduction to the book: "I have tried, taking infinite pains, to preserve the rhythm and quality of the original drawing. I worked unceasingly on each plate, with varying success, using many different tools. There is no secret about my methods. Dissatisfied, I reworked the plates again and again, sometimes making as many as fifteen successive states; for I wished them as far as possible to be equal in quality".
The prints are all black and white, which may have been influenced by German Expressionist woodcuts and illustrated books, roughly twenty-five by nineteen inches in size, and composed as a vignette with a legend written by Rouault himself. The imagery itself combines religious iconography and representations of both human misery and fraternity. Plate 3 focuses on the life and passion of Christ and the Catholic concept of human suffering. Rouault's Christ is depicted standing with his head and eyes down and his eyes shut. His face shows pain though he remains impassive. Rouault would return later in his career to the iconography of Christ's silent suffering since, for him, the only salvation for humanity was Christ.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Georges Rouault
- This Anguished World of Shadows: George Rouault's Miserere et GuerreOur PickBy Holly Flora
- Rouault in PerspectiveOur PickBy Soo Yun Kang
- Georges Rouault: The Inner LightBy Ileana Marcoulesco
- Georges Rouault: The Early Years 1903-1920Our PickBy Fabrice Hergott and Sarah Whitfield
- Georges Rouault: Illustrated Books. Catalogue RaisonnéBy Francois Chapon
- Sur l'art et sur la vieBy Georges Rouault