French painter; born in 1871 in Paris. His father was a cabinet-maker; his aunts did china painting. At fourteen he was apprenticed to a stained-glass painter. He worked on the restoration of medieval windows. From this work he retained a taste for iridescences and colours encircled with a vigorous black line. It developed in him, moreover, a craftsman's integrity, examples of which he had already seen among his family. Of the masters of his time, Rouault possesses the soundest craftsmanship in the traditional sense, both in draughtsmanship and the conventional techniques that once ruled official art, and in the preparation of colours. During his apprenticeship he attended courses at the Paris School of Decorative Arts. In 1891 he entered the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where his teacher was Gustave Moreau. The latter was a man of great culture and extremely broad minded. His work, unfortunately spoiled by excessively literary preoccupations, was related to the Symbolist movement and devoted to the evocation of a legendary and hieratic past, smothered in precious fabrics and jewels. The solid technical foundation he gave his pupils respected the originality of each. More than a teacher, he was a real friend to Rouault, whom he encouraged and to whom he gave self-confidence. But Rouault did not find himself immediately. His master had predicted a difficult career for him, perceiving his taste for rich and powerful pictorial material at the expense of linear precision. These tendencies existed even in Rouault's first works, where he treated religious subjects in a still traditional style. In 1893 he painted Samson Turning the Millstone; in 1895 Christ Dead Mourned by the Holy Women, both for the Prix de Rome, which he did not win. Here certain figures recall those of Leonardo da Vinci and of some of his disciples, Solario or Ambrogio da Predis. An admiration for Rembrandt is apparent in Christ said the Disciples of Emmaus. After a period of material difficulties and moral crisis, following the death of Gustave Moreau in 1898, and coinciding with an estrangement from his family, Rouault participated in the foundation of the Salon d'Automne in 1903. At that time he was already painting the landscapes of suburbs and bleak countrysides that are found throughout his work -- the earliest of these is The Work Yard of 1897. In 1904 and 1905 he exhibited works in which other themes appeared, themes that he has also taken up incessantly: prostitutes, clowns, pierrots. These canvases were done in a very dark tonality that disconcerted the public. The Catholic novelist Léon Bloy inspired certain subjects Rouault treated in 1905, like Monsieur et Madame Poulot, the strange couple of The Poor Woman. Bloy hardly understood the real problems of painting, and his nature made friendship difficult; however, the influence of his vehement oracular manner was evident. Rouault put extraordinary violence into the tribunal scenes, prostitutes and clowns he represented. Bestiality and stupidity are displayed on the faces that dark zones delineate cruelly with their black lines, accentuating the grotesqueness of the moral misery and physical ugliness. The horror of this fallen humanity fascinated Rouault; but he painted it with a kind of sensitive irony, dispensing light touches of bright colours, pinks, celestial blues, ardent reds.
In 1907 he worked at ceramics and met Odilon Redon, who was then making his most poetical transcriptions of coloured reveries. Rouault continued to treat social themes: peasants, workmen, individuals isolated or placed in their family surroundings; his characters transcend their station and become mythical figures. Rouault renewed his technique completely, reducing his drawing to essentials that took on a life of their own, giving up shadows, elaborate gradations, successive perspectives and planes, to portray the model directly in its hallucinating truth, created with colours chosen only for their greater expressive value. To reach the essential more directly he had only to block in a figure with large, rough strokes of colour that stand out against the shadow. His works contained the germ of tremendous power. They were starting a life that would be continued in all the painter's future creations. In 1917 Ambroise Vollard became his dealer. The artist undertook for him, until 1927, a whole series of etchings to illustrate various works: The Reincarnations of Père Ubu, The Circus and The Flowers of Evil of Baudelaire, a project that was abandoned but for which a number of plates were engraved, and finally Miserere and War, published only in 1948. In these plates, which are of exceptional dimensions, form is simplified to the extreme; all the sometimes caricatural picturesqueness of the previous works has disappeared in favour of a vehement expressionism of silhouette and a dramatic opposition of whites and blacks. Form is not only accentuated by dark zones but often uniformly encircled with a vigorous line that recalls the leading of stained glass. After a mechanical transfer to the copperplate of a composition drawn in India ink, Rouault undertook his work as engraver, with all possible tools: an etcher's needle, a roller, a file, a scraper, sandpaper, which he used according to his inspiration, discovering new techniques like the application of acid with wide strokes of the brush.
Unsatisfied, he took up the subject indefinitely, producing up to twelve or fifteen successive states. The plates are accompanied by titles or captions of a rare power of visual evocation. They are not the prodigious philosophical and moral epitomes of Goya, but rather incantations or magic formulas suggested by the requirements of a mysterious inner rhythm. One finds in these etchings the gallery of figures invented by Rouault to represent human misery and the appetites of the flesh: crooked judges, kings and those in high positions wearing frightening masks, so-called women of pleasure, the clown with a pointed hat topping his sad face. There are landscapes in which lines converge toward a powerful light, peaceful countrysides devastated by ruin and fire, empty streets expressing the solitude of cities. However, the artist has moments of poignant gentleness when he paints certain women's or children's faces -- in the most grimacing Daumiers, too, there are miraculous faces of young girls -- or -- when he tells of the sufferings of Christ and of the Virgin to redeem human sins. Upon this gigantic enterprise, in which the painter mixed acid-like pigments, did violence to metal and put his powerful stamp upon everything, the technique of black and white imposes its harsh and strange discipline. Features stand out, hard, absolute. There is no complacency in the satire, nothing flabby or inflated in the rendering of the horrible. The effect achieved is of a richness, a depth that makes Rouault the greatest visionary of modern times. In spite of his activity as an engraver, in which should be included the execution of settings for Diaghilev (vide Ballets Russes) and various literary texts, Rouault has pursued his work as a painter. It was especially after 1932 that the main part of his production again came to be in this field. Clowns and judges continued to supply him with themes, but he no longer kept the violence of his first works: anger had given way to pity. Wide, immense eyes, in the midst of livid faces, seemed to transcribe an inner emptiness or the vision of a beyond. Religious subjects grew more numerous and were integrated into the suburban landscapes; imprecise silhouettes stood out against towers and houses whose doors and windows suggested mouths and empty eyes. Scenes were bathed in a strange light, both warm and almost nocturnal, that seemed to radiate from within the forms. All these canvases Rouault kept taking up again, reworking them, never satisfied and never ready to part with them. From 1937 on he hardly ever signed his works and no longer dated them. In 1947 a suit was brought by him against the heirs of Ambroise Vollard. After a verdict that set a precedent, he was allowed to keep all the works still in his studio that he considered unfinished. He burned 315 of them, which he thought too far from the perfection he had glimpsed, and undertook a definitive perfecting of his work within selfassigned limits. It is in the large religious paintings, which compel everyone's esteem, that this great work reaches its peak, solitary but none the less entirely turned towards love for one's fellow man, passionate with fury but also with affection and pity. Rouault has drawn up an indictment of humanity that can be compared with the most terrible, those of Goya and Daumier. Then, by a sort of generosity, he has transcended the misery to reach the eternal myths. He paints the flaws of societies, the decrepitude of the institutions that men of all times have established; but he fulfils himself in a burning communion with the holy figures and the saints.