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Georges Rouault

Today’s Artist Birthday: Georges Rouault

Georges Henri Rouault (27 May 1871 – 13 February 1958) was a French painter, draughtsman, and printer, whose work is often associated with Fauvism and Expressionism.

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Rouault was born in Paris into a poor family. His mother encouraged his love for the arts, and in 1885 the fourteen-year-old future artist embarked on an apprenticeship as a glass painter and restorer, which lasted until 1890. This early experience as a glass painter has been suggested as a likely source of the heavy black contouring and glowing colors, likened to leaded glass, which characterize his mature painting style.

"The Crucifixion," by Georges Raoault
“The Crucifixion,” by Georges Rouault

During his apprenticeship, he also attended evening classes at the School of Fine Arts, and in 1891, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts, the official art school of France. There he studied under Gustave Moreau and became his favorite student. Rouault’s earliest works show a symbolism in the use of color that probably reflects Moreau’s influence, and when Moreau died in 1898, Rouault was nominated as the curator of the Moreau Museum in Paris.

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Georges Rouault, c. 1910

Around this same time, he became personally acquainted with 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 this rich artistic environment, in 1891 Rouault painted “The Way to Calvary“.

"The Way To Calvary," by Georges Raoault,
“The Way To Calvary,” by Georges Rouault, 1891

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. 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.

"Jeu de massacre (Slaughter)" by Georges Raoault, 1905
“Jeu de massacre (Slaughter)” by Georges Rouault, 1905

His use of stark contrasts and emotionality is credited to the influence of Vincent van Gogh. His characterizations of overemphasized grotesque personalities inspired the expressionist painters.

"The Clown," by Georges Raoault, 1918
“The Clown,” by Georges Rouault, 1918

In 1907, he 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 considerably to religious subjects.

Jacques Maritain, philosopher and lifetime friend of Raoault
Jacques Maritain, philosopher and lifetime friend of Rouault

Human nature was always the focus of his interest. He often quoted as saying, “A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human.”

A tree against
“Landscape With Large Trees,” by Georges Rouault

In 1908 Rouault married Marthe Le Sidaner, and together they had four children. In 1910, he 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.

From 1917, he 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 he was relieved by belief in resurrection.

"Head of Christ," by Georges Raoault, 1939
“Head of Christ,” by Georges Rouault, 1939

In 1929 he created the designs for Diaghilev’s ballet The Prodigal Son, with music by Prokofiev and choreography by Balanchine. In 1930 he also began to exhibit in foreign countries, mainly in London, New York and Chicago. In 1937 he painted “The Old King“, recognized by many as his very finest expressionist work.

"The Old King," by Georges Raoault, 1937
“The Old King,” by Georges Rouault, 1937

He exhibited his cycle Miserere in 1948.

"The Misery Of Death," by Georges Raoault, 19
“The Misery Of Death,” by Georges Rouault, 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.

George Raoault, painter and master of expressionism, 1944
George Rouault, painter and master of expressionism, 1944

Rouault died in Paris in on February 13, 1958, and was given a state funeral by the grateful government of France.

The state funeral of the influential artist, Georges Raoault,
The state funeral of the influential artist, Georges Rouault, February 17, 1958 – Paris, France.

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