Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Georges Rouault is a lesser known member of the Fauves, the French artist group responsible for Fauvism in the early 1900’s which was made famous by artists like Henri Matisse. Though Rouault was a member of this group, his style was an amalgamation of several different artistic eras. His idea of “expression” in painting was different from that of his Fauvist counterparts like Matisse; he showed much more raw passion in his work. Rouault sought to show emotion through the human face, emotion that typically mirrored his concern for the troubled and corrupt state of the world. These ideas were much more indicative of his predecessors Van Gogh and Gaugin than they were of the Fauves. Looking at his earlier works like Head of Christ (1905), the viewer can see a violence in his stroke, passion displayed by the paintbrush in an almost unrecognizable way. The image reveals itself through subtle clues, like the eyes, as the viewer looks at it. It has been said that if you cover the top third of this painting, the image totally disappears, but the emotion remains.
This passion and imagery was something that would be a staple in Rouault’s work as he believed a Catholic revival would be the solution for the world’s corruption that he feared so much. However, even though the emotion and framework of his work would continue, it developed into a much more colorful and, in some ways, more controlled version of expression. Where pieces like Head of Christ featured a more sporadic and wild use of color that was barely controlled by the thick black lines, works like The Old King (1916-1937) featured a more deliberate color application that was blocked in by the bold lines he continued to use.
Rouault was trained as a stained-glass worker in his youth and this was a likely route of his enthusiasm for medieval art. This brings up an obvious reflection of his later works to Gothic stained glass. Heavy blocks of vibrant color, held together by thick outlines, Rouault channelled his understanding and fascination with stained glass into his later paintings. Yet, while his color and line application became more refined, The Old King still has a lot of that emotion he showed in his earlier works. This painting took over 20 years to complete and Rouault still had to be convinced by a collector to release it. The time this painting took can be seen in the layering of colors, sometimes looking like they were just pounded into each other. Even though he’s reigned in his wild stroke a little bit, the viewer can still feel the aggression and violence of application. This emotion is all tied together in the face, where the stroke of Head of Christ gave it inherent emotion with just how hecticly it was created, The Old King shows a true level of contempt and concern in the face. It almost appears that the king has turned his head as he scoffs away from the viewer.
Georges Rouault is an under-recognized character in the era of Fauvism, and all expressive painting styles. His work is a beautiful combination of new and old expressive techniques that also have roots to classical stylings. His early works show a true emotion and violence in expression and his later works like the The Old King show a much more controlled and deep use of that same emotion. Though his other late works are extremely expressive, it could be said that The Old King was the pinnacle of his painting, emotion, control, depth, all facets of his style perfectly coming together over 20 years. Rouault is certainly an artist worth looking into as he symbolizes how art progressed in the early 1900’s without totally abandoning classical roots.