BIOGRAPHY: Georges Rouault (1871-1958)

Georges Rouault was born in the midst of the Paris Commune on May 27, 1871. Son of a cabinetmaker, Rouault came from a poor family in the Parisian working class district of Belleville.1 Religion and art influenced Rouault from an early age; his father was an avid supporter of the Catholic Democrat Hugeues Felicite Robert de Lammenais, but sent Rouault to a Protestant school when Lammenais was condemned by the Pope.2 By the age of fourteen, the artist’s exposure to his grandfather’s art collection led to his apprenticeship with the stained glass maker Marius Tamoni and later for Georges Hirsch.3  His exposure to the Gothic revival would later influence his heavily contoured work.

During his apprenticeship, Rouault also studied at the School of Decorative Arts where he perfected his drawing technique.4 Although drawing would become an important aspect of Rouault’s later solo work, the artist would continue to work in the stained glass medium. His training in the stained glass process pushed him towards the goal of becoming a fine artist that used the wonderful colors that were similar to the individual panes of glass for the windows.5

In the 1890s, Rouault joined Elie Delaunay’s studio at the École de Beaux-Arts to perfect his painting style. Gustave Moreau eventually took over the studio when Delaunay died in 1892, and became a mentor to Rouault, who was one of Moreau’s best students. Moreau influenced Rouault’s interest in the human body and his use of color. During this time, Rouault unsuccessfully competed for the Prix de Rome twice—winning only minor prizes.6 This failure may have been a blessing in disguise because Moreau claimed that the “[Prix de Rome] are perilous exercises that wear you out.”7

Moreau was otherwise significant in Rouault’s artistic development on a psychological level. The symbolist painter emphasized introspection, and claimed, “Art is a furious tracking down of the inner feelings solely by means of plastic expression.”8 He encouraged Rouault to turn to religion and philosophy in order to portray a transcendent spirituality through art.9 As a result, Rouault’s faith became his primary inspiration for his artwork; his mentor’s advice to look inward is reflected in Rouault’s emotive works as his career progressed.10

Another figure would enter Rouault’s life and influence the artist’s spirituality: Léon Bloy. A deeply religious author and friend of the artist, Bloy wrote two radical Catholic novels entited Le Désespéré (1887) and La Pauvre (1897). The books’ themes of suffering, redemption, and disillusionment with the world significantly influenced Rouault’s art, and led the artist to remark, “I have meditated long and often on suffering.”11 Bloy’s influence on Rouault’s paintings can be seen in the artist’s early twentieth century works in his dark compositions with shades of blue.12

At the turn of the century, primitivism—an art style that favored flat colors and simple forms—had infiltrated the European avant-garde.13 Primitivism influenced the Fauvist and German Expressionist movements.14 Although Rouault never formally identified himself with either movement, his works are often associated with these art styles.15 The Fauves first exhibited in 1906 at the Salon d’Automne, which Rouault co-founded with artists such as Henri Matisse and André Derain in 1903.16 Beginning in 1905, Fauvism was an influential but short-lived style of painting in that favored “vivid expressionistic and non-naturalistic use of color” throughout a composition.17 Although Rouault exhibited with the Fauves, his use of muted, dark colors and subject matter of prostitutes and weary clowns were antithetical to the exuberance of Fauvist paintings.18 Thus, his work was more in accordance with the German Expressionist movement with his attention to spiritual expression and inner vision, as he detested objectivity saying, “objective artists are blind.”19 At this point Rouault’s painting style was characterized by geometric forms and and thick contours that evoke his earlier experience with stained glass.20

Around 1910, Rouault moved to Versailles and created a series of watercolors of the lower class, such as prostitutes and street performers, that were well-received by his fellow avant-garde artists.21 When crisis gripped Europe with World War I, Rouault and his wife Marthe depended on his paintings and her music lessons for their livelihood.22 Their economic hardship, however, took a hopeful turn when Ambroise Vollard, an influential art dealer and publisher in modern art, saw promise in Rouault.

The artist’s first commission with Vollard was the Miserere et Guerre series in 1913.23 The idea for the prints came about in light of two significant events in Rouault’s lifetime: the death of his father and the devastating Great War.24 The Miserere series thus reflects the hardship and misery that Rouault both experienced and saw around him.25 Both of these deeply psychological events would influence his choice of a theme for the series; Christ, the poor, and the French bourgeoisie all appear in the prints.26 However, the strong philosophical and religious foundation that Rouault acquired under Moreau would become the defining features of the Miserere.27

Rouault’s relationship with Vollard was strained, however, and the artist felt almost enslaved, saying that Vollard “wished to burden the pilgrim” and pushed Rouault to finish works in spite of their unfinished appearance to meet publication deadlines.28 Rouault claimed that he did not receive compensation for some of his works and that Vollard damaged his reputation by circulating his unfinished paintings.29 By 1948 Rouault gained property rights to his artwork after Vollard’s death and reportedly burned three-hundred and fifteen paintings in public out of his disdain for his former agent.30

By the 1950s, Rouault earned international acclaim for the religiosity in his works in a world that had turned in its back on religion.31 Retrospective exhibitions had already been held in the United States, London, and Venice during World War II, and he exhibited his Miserere prints at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952.32 Towards the end of his life Rouault received various honors from the French government and Pope Pius XII, receiving the titles Commander of the Legion of Honor and Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.33 Rouault died in Paris in 1958 at the age of eighty-six, and was given a state funeral by the government.34

Kaitlyn Argila & Nicole Meily


The Miserere series has a complex and interesting history. The artists’ primitive and fauvist style in his paintings attracted acclaim with the rise of the expressionist movement, as artists and collectors were increasingly interested in functioning outside of conventional artistic theory.  The series was commissioned by Ambroise Vollard in 1913 and was originally conceived as a series of one hundred prints in a two volume set entitled Miserere et Guerre [‘Have Mercy on me, God, in thy Kindness’ and War] with religious text by poet André Suarès.35 Rouault proceeded to create preliminary drawings for paintings, which were then transformed into prints from 1912 to 1918 using the photogravure method.36 He then extensively reworked the plates using other intaglio processes from 1922-1927.37

As a result of publication delays and tensions between Rouault and Vollard, the series was reduced to fifty-eight prints with the shortened title Miserere.38 Vollard ordered 450 copies of the smaller series and cancelled the plates. However, the text meant to accompany the prints had yet to be written; Miserere’s publication was further delayed. When Vollard died on the eve of World War II in 1939, Rouault fought to regain the rights to his work.39 By 1948, twenty-four years after its conception, Rouault was successful in recovering his artistic property, and the Miserere series was finally published with Rouault’s own captions.40

The theme of melancholic wretchedness and agony in the human experience dominates this series.41 The series features a mix of religious figures (e.g. Christ and the Virgin) and people drawn from Rouault’s surroundings such as the poor or the bourgeoisie. Scholars have divided Miserere into the following groups and themes:42

1-3: Christ 22-24: The poor 42-43: The poor
4-14: The poor 25-29: The spiritual state of France 44-48: Death
15-17: Bourgeois women 30-35: Christ 49-52: The bourgeoisie
18-20: Court scenes 36-38: War Scenes 53-56: Hope
20-21: Christ 39-41: The bourgeoisie 57-58: Virgin & Christ

By presenting Christ as the Alpha and the Omega of the series and scattering other images of his passion throughout, Rouault reminds viewers that the tribulations and afflictions of mankind are healed through God’s son. Viewers are invited to contemplate and reflect on the spiritual message embedded in the series— “it is by [Christ’s] wounds that we are healed.”43 What is more, the depiction of the Veronica’s cloth as the truest representation of Christ solidifies Rouault’s connection to truth. In depicting what some consider a holy printed image, Rouault reinforces the idea that through the arts and particularly prints, an artist is able to communicate religious truths. Later, the artist’s visual connections included the condemned criminal to Christ (still) facing flagellation and the necessity of suffering to experience hope.44

The content of the Miserere series was even more relevant to Rouault’s surroundings by the time of its publication, following World War II. The prints earned Rouault worldwide recognition, with museums in Europe, America, and Japan praising his work.45 Rouault gained renown as a fundamentally Catholic artist throughout the world as a result of these and other works.46

Emily Inglis & Nicole Meily

Rouault’s preface to the Miserere series

1 Lionello Venturi, Rouault: Biographical and Critical Study, translated by James Emmons (Paris: Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1960), 5.
2 Lammenais was the author of Essay on Indifference in the Matters of Religion, which stated that active clerical organization and the awakening of the “ultramontane spirit.” Napoleon III and his police deemed this philosophy too ideological and suppressed it. Antoine Dégert, “Félicité Robert de Lamennais,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910),
3 Edward Lucie-Smith, Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 89.
4 Pierre Courthion, Georges Rouault, (New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1962), 15.
5 Ibid.
6 Lucie-Smith, 89.
7 Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau: His Life and Works, trans. James Emmon (Boson: New York Graphics Society, 1976), 230.
8 Quoted in James Thrall Soby, Georges Rouault: Paintings and Prints (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1945), 8.
9 Holly Flora and Soo Yun Kang, This Anguished World of Shadows: Georges Rouault’s
Miserere Et Guerre (New York: Museum of Biblical Art, 2006), 13.
10 Ibid.
11 Joshua Kind, Rouault (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1969), 9.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Soby, 14.
16 Lucie-Smith, 89.
17 Fauves meant “wild beasts,” bringing to mind a brutal approach to artistic expression by the bold lines used throughout the compositions. Kind, 10.
18 Soby, 14.
19 Ibid.
20 Flora and Kang, 14.
21 Ibid., 13.
22 Frank and Dorothy Getlein, George Rouault’s Miserere (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1964), 14.
23 See “Background” for a history on the series.
24 Courthion, Georges Rouault, 190.
25 Flora and Kang, 27.
26 Ibid., 25.
27 Ibid.
28 Getlein, George Rouault’s Miserere, 21.
29 Ibid., 23.
30 Ibid.
31 Flora and Kang, 16.
32 Lucie-Smith, 92.
33 Getlein, George Rouault’s Miserere, 24.
34 Rouault was the first artist to have received a state funeral. Ibid.
35 Miserere is a common prayer adapted from Psalm 51. Flora and Kang, 15.
36 See “Techniques” section.
37 Courthion, Georges Rouault, 190.
38 Flora and Kang, 15.
39 Frank and Dorothy Getlein, The Bite of the Print: Satire and Irony in Woodcuts, Engravings, Etchings, Lithographs, and Serigraphs (New York: Bramhall House, 1963), 212.
40 Ibid.
41 Getlein, George Rouault’s Miserere, 22.
42 Flora and Kang, 27.
43 Getlein, The Bite of the Print,  224.
44 Stephen Schloesser, “Georges Rouault: Masked Redemption,” in Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933 (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 239.
45 Ibid.
46 Flora and Kang, 44.


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