Fauvism was a short-lived but important art movement (c.1905-1910)
in the early part of the 20th century. Fauvist
painters emphasised the function of colour
in painting above representational or realistic values, an idea that
had begun with the Impressionists. Gustave Moreau was the Fauvists' inspirational
teacher. As well as Rouault and Matisse, he also taught other modern
artists including Albert Marquet
(1875-1947), Charles Camoin (1879-1965),
and Henri-Charles Manguin (1874-1949), three
other important figures in the movement. Moreau encouraged his students
to use colour for expression. The movement was also fed by other avant-garde
forms of modern art which were in circulation
at the time, including works by the French Primitives and African sculpture.
Rouault exhibited with the Fauves in their now famous 1905 show
at the Salon d'Automne
at which the group received their name from the art critic Louis
Vauxcelles (1870-1943). Although part of the show, Rouault remained
aloof, preferring to develop his own personal, purer style of painting.
Thus he avoided the Fauves' garish palette in favour of sombre but glowing
In 1907 Rouault began painting a series of works based on clowns and prostitutes.
These paintings were a social criticism, based on a spiritualism encouraged
by his friend the philosopher Jacques Maritain. The paintings were first
exhibited at the Druet Gallery in Paris. Examples of paintings from this
period include Heads Of Two Clowns and A Clown. From about
1912 onwards, Rouault became more Expressionist in manner. As a movement,
Expressionism originated in Germany and Austria and was influenced by
the Die Brucke and Der
Blaue Reiter artist groups, as well as African art, Fauvism and Van
Gogh. Reacting against Impressionism, which focused on rendering the visual
appearance of the subject matter, German
Expressionism strove to capture the emotion of the object.
Although Rouault never officially joined an expressionist group, he was
an important influence for many who did.
A devout Catholic, from 1917 onwards, Rouault primarily dedicated himself
to creating religious paintings,
chiefly on the theme of The Passion. In fact, today he is considered one
of the most important religious artists of the 20th century. Rouault himself
said, 'All of my work is religious for those who know how to look at it.'
One of his most famous works is a series of etchings
called Miserere et Guerre, which was inspired by the misery of
World War I. The etchings were used initially to illustrate two books
Miserere (Have mercy) and Guerre (War), to be written by
the poet Andre Suares. The books never appeared, but with the help of
the art dealer Ambroise Vollard
(1866-1939), Rouault completed the commission between 1914 and 1918. He
continued to work on the plates until they were finally published in 1927.
Rouault improved the technical print process with these engravings, using
sandpaper, edged rollers, scrappers and acid to produce depth, variety
and richness, rivalling what could be achieved with paint on canvas. Miserere
depicts many scenes, including clowns, kings and prostitutes, but the
central and reoccurring theme is the figure of Christ. Miserere
was born out of the unprecedented violence of World War I and the artist's
intense compassion for the marginalized and underprivileged. The prints
are a wonderful achievement in the medium of religious printmaking
and are just as powerful today, as they were when printed almost a century
In 1917 Rouault signed a contract with the famous art dealer Ambroise
Vollard, which provided him the financial means and freedom to paint for
many years. The only drawback was that Vollard was very ambitious (greedy),
and insisted on taking everything Rouault produced: in return the artist
received a salary and studio. Vollard was a jealous patron who monopolised
the works of his favourite artists, which meant that for 20 years people
judged Rouault by his earlier work rather than his contemporary projects.
The Miserere et Guerre plates were not shown publicly until 1927.
It was only in 1937 that Rouault began to get a reputation, when 42 of
his paintings which were considered 'new' by the critics, but which had
been long painted, went on display at the Exposition des Artistes Independents.
In 1939 Vollard was killed in a car accident, which meant that Rouault
was finally released from his contract. In 1947 he sued Vollard's heirs
for the return of many of his canvasses. The suit was successful and almost
800 pieces of works were returned to him.
Recognition and Retrospectives
During the 1930s and 1940s Rouault was awarded several retrospective exhibitions
in some of the world's best art museums
- notably in Washington DC and Boston. After the World War II, his vision,
dark colours and religious themes were in keeping with the mood of the
times, which led to him being granted a retrospective in 1945 at the Museum
of Modern Art, New York. The following year he shared an exhibition
with the French painter and sculptor Georges
Braque (co-founder with Picasso of Cubism) at the London Tate Gallery,
and in 1948 exhibited at the Venice Biennale. When he turned 80 in 1951,
the Centre Catholique des Intellectuels Francais organised a party
at the grand Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The French State honoured him
with the title of Commander of the Legion of Honour, and when Rouault
died in 1958, he received a state funeral. Like Rembrandt, Rouault had
a natural affinity for biblical-style portraits, and remains one of the
great exponents of modern Christian art
of the 20th century.