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Georges Rouault was born in a basement in a working-class suburb of Paris during a bombardment of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Encouraged by his maternal grandfather, he began drawing as a child and was apprenticed to a stained-glass maker at the age of fourteen. At age twenty, Rouault began studying at the École des Beaux-Arts under Gustave Moreau, the Symbolist painter who also taught Henri Matisse. Devastated in 1898 by the death of Moreau who bequeathed his estate to the City of Paris, Rouault was made the curator of the new Musée Gustave Moreau.
When Rouault returned to Paris in 1902 following a breakdown and recuperation in Evian, his style had changed noticeably. That fall with his friends Matisse and Albert Marquet, he founded the Salon d’Automne where he exhibited his work along with the Fauves and Indépendants, two groups of artists not included in the official Salon of the French Academy. After a brief interest in the Fauvist movement, Rouault evolved towards a more somber style, both in palette and in subject matter. He showed passion for ceramics, illustration and lithography, but stopped working in aquarelle and started using oil paint for his work instead, heavily influenced by his background in stained-glass craftsmanship.
Although he briefly flirted with the possibility of a monastic life, Rouault finally married Marthe Le Sidaner in 1908, sister of the painter Henri. A pianist, she helped support the family for many years by giving piano lessons. The first of their four children was born in 1909. The next year was very eventful: at 38 he finally had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Druet in Paris, his work was shown in London and Munich, the State bought a piece of his from the Salon d’Automne for the Musée de Colmar and his second daughter was born. In 1912 the family moved to Versailles where their third child, a son, was born and where Rouault started work on the drawings that were to become the Miserere after his father passed away. The last of his children was born in 1915 during the War.
The dealer, Ambroise Vollard, originally taken with Rouault as a ceramicist, became progressively more interested in all of his production, commissioning pieces and finally becoming his sole dealer in 1917, installing him in a studio on the top floor of his own house. Vollard commissioned Rouault to produce a hundred images for a two-volume project entitled Miserere et Guerre, which would appear with text by the poet André Suarès. Rouault started the series, which became one of his best-known works, in 1914 and continued working on it through World War I and again from 1922 until 1927.
Vollard and his family, who sealed the studio after his death in a car accident in 1939, retained control of the images as well as other work until 1948, at which time Rouault prevailed in court and then published his collection of prints as a single volume entitled Miserere. Of 700 unfinished canvases returned to him as a result of this court decision, he burnt 315 before witnesses, saying that he was too old at 77 to ever be able to finish them.
Despite the impressive quality, volume and diversity of his work, Rouault became widely known only at the dawn of WWII. The first monograph on his work was published in 1921 but his work continued to polarize the critics. Even in 1930, the French government refused to comply with the Musée du Luxembourg’s request to purchase a painting. However, his international reputation continued to develop. Rouault received major recognition for his work in 1937 when an important retrospective of his paintings was shown at the Petit Palais during the Paris World's Fair to tremendous public enthusiasm. By 1946, his work had been celebrated in major exhibitions at MoMA in New York and the Tate in London.
In 1951 at 80, Rouault was made a Commander of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest accolade. In February 1958, Rouault died and, by government decree, was given a state funeral at the Church of St-Germain-des-Près.