(Georges Rouault, 1871-1958)
Isolated among the artists of his time, George Rouault produced work which proved it was possible to be an independent yet wholly committed Modernist. He was born in 1871, in the cellar of a house in Belleville, a working class quarter of Paris near the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The city was at that moment being bombarded by government troops from Versailles, who were putting down the Paris Commune. His father was an artisan - a finisher and varnisher of pianos in the Pleyel factory. He was also a follower of the Catholic democrat Lammenais who sent his son to a Protestant school in disgust when Lammenais was condemned by the Pope. Rouault's grandfather was in his own way equally remarkable: he was an employee in the postal service and a modest collector - he bought Callot engravings, lithographs by Daumier and reproductions of paintings by Rembrandt.
The Protestant school was not a success, and in 1885 Rouault was taken away and apprenticed for two years to a maker of stained glass named Tamoni. He was then employed by another stained glass maker, Georges Hirsch, who did some restoration work on medieval windows, which gave his young assistant a chance to examine them and to realize their superiority to modern work. From 1885 onwards Rouault also studied at evening classes at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, and in 1891 he was able to transfer himself to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he entered Elie Delaunay's studio. Delaunay died the following year, and it was Rouault's good luck that his successor was Gustave Moreau, one of the leading Symbolists. Moreau immediately became a progressive influence in the school; his pupils included Matisse, Marquet, Evenepoel and Manguin, but it was Rouault who was his closest disciple.
During this period Rouault's ambitions were still conventional. He set himself to win the Prix de Rome, but failed on two occasions despite Moreau's encouragements. He did, however, manage to win some minor prizes, and he exhibited his work for the first time, sending it to the conservative Salon des Artistes Francais. In 1898 Moreau died, and there was an immediate vendetta within the Ecole des Beaux Arts against his more 'advanced' disciples. Rouault might have been put in a precarious position but was rescued by being offered a curatorship of the Gustave Moreau Museum which was set up under the terms of his teacher's will. He still endeavoured to maintain some links with the academic art world for example, he exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition of French art held in connection with the Paris Exposition Universel of 1900, and was awarded a bronze medal. Nevertheless, the period was one of discouragement. In 1901 he spent some time at the Benedictine Abbey of Liguge in Poitou, where the novelist J. K. Huysmans was endeavouring to form a religious community of artists. The experiment was brought to an end by the law against religious congregations introduced by the anti clerical French government of the time.
It was at this point that Rouault claimed he had the good fortune to find himself as a painter, but to have been quite unconscious of what was happening to him:
It was not the influence of Lautrec, Degas or the moderns which made me experiment with a new style, but interior necessity, or the wish - maybe inconsistent - not to be trapped by conventional religious subjects.
In any case, he committed himself to the Modernist party, and in 1903 was one of the founders of the Salon d'Automne. Equally significant was his meeting with the radical Catholic writer Leon Bloy. He was especially struck by Bloy's novel La Femme Pauvre, published in 1897, and in 1904, the author reported rather complacently in his diary: 'My book has touched him to the quick, and left a wound that will never heal. I tremble to think of the sufferings in store for the unfortunate man.' In fact their understanding was in many respect imperfect and required great tolerance on Rouault's part, as Bloy had no eye for modern art and detested Rouault's interpretations of his characters. Seeing the three works by Rouault in the Salon d'Automne of 1905, which used imagery drawn from his own creation, Bloy recorded sadly: 'Bourgeois foulness has wrought so violent and horrified a reaction in him that his art seems to have received the death blow.' The phase immediately before the First World War was one of transition for Rouault. He experimented with glazed ceramics, a path he did not pursue; he travelled a little he went to visit Bruges; and he married. His wife was Marthe Le Sidaner, sister of the painter Henri Le Sidaner, and she was to be a constant support for the rest of his life. Despite a successful one man show at the Druet Gallery in 1910, Rouault was often very poor. In 1910 or 1911 (the sources differ) he moved to Versailles where he inhabited a miserable, rat infested house in an old quarter of the town. On one occasion he went to tell his landlord, who was a veterinary surgeon, that he intended to complain to the local Committee for Public Health. 'It'll do you no good,' said the landlord complacently, 'I'm the chairman.' During the Versailles years Rouault did a series of watercolours of low life subjects, including a series of paintings of prostitutes. These were apparently inspired by a single glimpse of a woman seen leaning out of a door, and Rouault was later careful to explain how the pictures came into being:
I am not a specialist in brothel subjects ... The woman I saw in the doorway is not the woman I painted. She and the rest corresponded to the emotional state I was in at the time.
In 1916 Rouault left Versailles and in 1917 he signed a contract with the famous dealer Ambroise Vollard which was to provide him with freedom to work for many years. Rouault agreed to give Vollard everything he produced in return for a salary; Vollard even went so far as to provide him with a studio on the top floor of his own house, where he could work undisturbed. As the artist was later to discover, there were certain drawbacks to this arrangement. Vollard was a jealous patron - he liked to monopolize the work of the artists he favoured and to keep it from prying eyes. The result was that for twenty years people judged Rouault by old work, rather than by what he was producing currently. Vollard had a passion for fine illustrated books, and it was natural that he should encourage Rouault to turn in this direction. During the first decade of their association Rouault concentrated mainly on graphic work: during this period he produced the plates for Misere, which is generally considered his finest achievement. From 1918 onwards, he also returned to making paintings of sacred subjects. Some attention did come his way from outside: there was a scattering of exhibitions; in 1921 the first monograph on his work was published; in 1924 there was a retrospective at the Druet Gallery, where he had shown before; and he was awarded the Legion of Honour. In 1926 he published his book Souvenirs intimes, and in 1929 Diaghilev commissioned him to design his last major project, The Prodigal Son, with music by Prokofiev and choreography by Balanchine. It was not until 1937 that Rouault's reputation took a great stride forward: forty two paintings, all in a style which was relatively 'new' for the critics and public but long established so far as the artist himself was concerned, were shown as part of the large 'Exposition des Artistes Independents', staged in connection with the Paris Exposition Universelle. In 1939 Vollard was killed in an accident and the artist was thus released from his contract. It left behind it an important question: what was to happen to the great mass of unfinished work which was now in the possession of Vollard's heirs? In 1947 Rouault brought a suit against them to recover this material. Rouault had always been very concerned with the artist's rights over his own creation. In 1943 he wrote:
I sometimes dream, in these last years of my life, of upholding a thesis at the Sorbonne on the spiritual defence of works of art and the artist's rights before the law, and the ways and means of securing these rights, so that those who come after us may be better protected.
He succeeded perhaps better than he had hoped. He asked the courts for the return of 800 unfinished and unsigned paintings which had remained in Vollard's possession at the time of his death, and his right to them was eventually conceded. He only failed to recover those which had already been sold. In November 1948, to make his point quite clear, he ceremonially burned before witnesses 315 of the canvases he had recovered. Rouault's reputation was not damaged by the war. He had already had a few exhibitions abroad in the 1930s, and in 1940-41 there were Rouault retrospectives in Boston, Washington and San Francisco. In the immediately post-war period his sometimes sombre vision was in tune with the times. There was a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1945, and another, shared with Braque, at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1946. in 1948 he exhibited at the Venice Biennale and travelled to Italy for the first time.
When his eightieth birthday was celebrated at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in 1951, the celebrations were organized by the Centre Catholique des Intellectuels Francais. But the French state honoured him too: he was promoted to the rank of Commander of the Legion of Honour. In the 1950s, what had been a trickle of retrospective exhibitions became a flood, and when Rouault died in February 1958, he was given a state funeral.
- From Edward Lucie-Smith, "Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists"