Georges Rouault (1871-1958), considered one of the most notable Christian artists of the 20th century.
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A French Expressionist and devout Catholic, Rouault was born in the Belleville quarter on the outskirts of Paris. "In the faubourg of toil and suffering, in the darkness, I was born. Keeping vigil over pictorial turpitudes, I toiled miles away from certain dilettantes," he later wrote.
His father was a cabinetmaker, and Rouault's first job was as an artisan's assistant to a restorer of stained glass windows. "My time there was short, but it marked me with a seal that was legendary, epical," he said. Ever after he would remember the spirit of the anonymous artists who had made the windows but refrained from attaching their names to their work.
In 1891, Rouault painted The Way to Calvary.
In 1908, he married Marthe Le Sidaner; they had four children.
As early as 1913, one critic, Gustave Coquiot, exclaimed, "One must be a monk to understand him."
Rouault was deeply affected by the outbreak and aftermath of World War I. He became friends with the notoriously irascible Catholic writer Léon Bloy, and later with the philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife Raïssa, both converts.
"This kind of realism is in no way a realism of physical appearances; it is realism of the spiritual significance of what exists. . ."
He painted fugitives, clowns, prostitutes, beggars, and corpses — the casualties of war, materialism, and a complacent bourgeoisie. But Rouault's work was human rather than "political." As Raissa Maritain observed, "The quality of a work does not depend on its subject, but on its spirit." Jacques Maritain noted, "This kind of realism is in no way a realism of physical appearances; it is realism of the spiritual significance of what exists (and moves and suffers and loves and kills); it is realism permeated with the signs and dreams that are commingled with the being of things."
Rouault's masterpiece is widely considered to be the series of mixed-media intaglio prints called The Miserere, which he exhibited in 1948. He was close to eighty at the time. With its nuanced blacks and grays, the series depicts the horror and the sorrow of human suffering, and every human being's complicity in that suffering. Are We Not All Convicts? the title of one asks. In another, a drawing of a smug, well-fed man is entitled We Think Ourselves Kings. A third, Street of the Lonely, could with its evocation of existential isolation be the street that I — or you — live on.
The political turmoil, threat of mass destruction, and rise of the right that marked Rouault's era have only intensified in our day. The root malady is spiritual and so, as always, is the solution.
In Rouault A Vision of Suffering and Salvation, author William A. Dyrness reports:
In 1952, a writer for the religious periodical La Croix asked Rouault what he thought of religious or sacred art. As usual, Rouault refused to be brought into the debate. He said simply that, to talk about art in the Church, one most first of all love painting."
Heather King. "Georges Rouault." Magnificat (December, 2017).
Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.
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Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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