Progression of Art
Jeu de massacre (Slaughter)
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.
Watercolor, gouache, India ink and pastel on paper - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Two Nudes (The Sirens)
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.
Gouache on paper - Norton Simon Museum
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.
Illustrated book with 58 aquatints on Arches laid paper - Plate 3. "toujours flagellé" ("forever scourged")
Pierrot is one the most famous character of the Commedia Dell'Arte and had been very popular in the French pantomime tradition since the 18th century. This middle-to-late period clown is part of a career-spanning series produced by Rouault featuring the figure of Pierrot. For him, the sad clown initially symbolized human weakness and vulnerability; a state of false hopes and unfulfilled dreams. However, the somber character and sad look of Rouault's early clowns would give way to a more serene theater character. Here, the colors are bright and warm with both the stage and the figure treated on the same hues of white and red. The artist's characteristic black bold lines delineate the colors in a Cloisonnist way which was typical of Rouault's mature style; it takes the viewer back in fact to the art of the stained glass while the flattening of the image situates the painting firmly within the realm of modernity.
All of Rouault's Pierrots have this same elongated face and straight nose. The figure here seems quite peaceful with a slight smile and the eyes remain closed. If Pierrot is often said to be an alter ego of the artist, here, this whimsical, thoughtful and serene clown could evoke Rouault's own, newfound peace in the mid-1930s. "I spent my life painting twilights", Rouault reflected at the time, "I ought to have the right now to paint the dawn". Lionello Venturi added: "When he paints clowns, the grotesque becomes amiable, even lovable [...] colors grow rich and resplendent, almost as if the artist, laying aside his crusader's arms for a moment, were relaxing in the light of the sun and letting it flood into his work".
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Head of Christ
Using simple, strong black lines, Rouault painted many portraits of Christ in this style. Blends of warm and subdued colors separated by heavy lines emphasize the face of Christ who is also surrounded by a hazy halo of light. Using realistic flesh-tones, the painting is a profoundly human image of Christ. The expression of the eyes is particularly striking, and, when taken with the slightly tilted position of the head, reinforces the depth of Christ's wisdom.
Rouault does not seek to represent an omniscient and omnipotent God in his Christ. Through this portrait, he conveys Christ as a (the) paragone of empathy and compassion. His naked flesh tones coupled with his sincere expression represent Christ as a man who experienced all the pain (and more) of the human condition. In this sense, Christ may be compared to all the outcasts depicted by Rouault throughout his career. Clowns, entertainers, Pierrot himself, and prostitutes become figures of Christ in effect. But, for the devout artist, Christ is the ultimate redeemer. His look here is penetrative but not punishing, and the calm expression of the face offers a path to love and forgiveness.
Oil on canvas - Cleveland Museum of Art
Biblical landscape with two trees
At the end of his life, Rouault painted a series of landscapes usually titled Biblical Landscapes or Landscapes with Figures. Typical of these late works, this painting is composed with an architectural structure in the background and unidentified figures populating the foreground. The characters here are in the very center of the picture framed by two trees (that are also mentioned in the title). Painting from his imagination, Rouault carefully builds the space of this landscape to support the figures. The sun is omnipresent in all these late paintings and illuminates the composition (as it does here). Dominated by warm dark brown and green, Rouault uses pure colors, flattened figures, and heavy black outlines.
Inspired by his own faith, each of his landscapes displays an atmosphere of calm and serenity. The clothing indicates ancient times, and although the title does not reference a specific Biblical story, the figures may very well be Jesus accompanied by followers. With a simplicity of means, the artist looks back to symbolic landscapes and combines his search of pure colors with more classical influences. Via these means Rouault lends his scene a typically deep spiritual dimension that marked him out as unique amongst his peers. Earlier in his career the poet and critic André Suarès prompted in a review of Rouault's work, "never smother the mystical song that rests deep inside you" - it was advice he heeded throughout his whole creative life.
Oil on paper mounted on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York