Georges Rouault
Biography, Biblical Paintings of French Expressionist Painter.

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Georges Rouault (1871-1958)


Early Life
Religious Artist
Ambroise Vollard
Recognition and Retrospectives

Famous Paintings

The Old King (1937).
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
A masterpiece of modern biblical art.

Georges Rouault: Self-Portrait (1911)
Private Collection. One of the
Greatest Expressionist paintings of
the twentieth century.

The Clown (1912)
Musem of Modern Art, New York.


For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

See: Art: Definition and Meaning.


Ranked among the most talented of expressionist painters of the early 20th century and an influential figure in French painting, Georges Rouault experimented with Fauvism before developing one of the purest forms of Expressionism. Starting as an apprentice to a stained-glass window maker, he went on to study fine arts at the traditional Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Influenced by his tutor, the symbolist and colourist Gustave Moreau, Rouault's subject matter was fairly limited and chiefly consisted of Biblical subjects, gloomy landscapes and the occasional bouquet of flowers. His palette remained dark for most of his painting career, although his paintings are characterized by sombre but glowing colours. Rouault also produced numerous examples of watercolour painting and gouache painting, as well as stained glass art, graphic designs, etchings (aquatints) and lithographs. Noted for his exquisite religious art, Rouault's greatest 20th century paintings include his series of etchings Miserere et Guerre (1914-1925); Self-Portrait (1911, MOMA, NY); The Clown (1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York); The Three Judges (1913, gouache, Museum of Modern Art, New York); The Old King (1937, oil, Carnegie Museum of Art); and Christ on the Cross (1936, aquatint, Private Collection). He is associated with the Ecole de Paris.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.


Early Life

Rouault was born in Paris in 1871. Although his family were poor, they were artistically inclined. His father was a cabinetmaker and his grandfather was passionate about art, and owned a collection of lithography by the artist Honore Daumier. Rouault is later said to have commented that he 'went first to school with Daumier'. In 1885 he embarked on an apprenticeship making stained glass windows. The influence of this early training can be clearly seen in his later oil painting, which often contains figures heavily contoured in black lines, with luminous flat colours reminiscent of stained glass imagery. In 1891 Rouault entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Here he came under the influence of his tutor Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Moreau, an exponent of symbolism, was a painter who focused on painting biblical and mythological figures. His other important students were Henri Matisse and Jules Flandrin. When Moreau died in 1898, Rouault was nominated curator of the Moreau Museum in Paris.



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 colours.


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.

Religious Artist

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 ago.

Ambroise Vollard

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.

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