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Georges Henri Rouault - Darkness On The Edges

Words:

Edd Norval
September 2, 2020

Many great artists have been overlooked throughout history. Some may be that their ideas didn’t reach the right audience, which they may yet do, and others that they were simply around at a time with giants as their contemporaries. Georges Henri Rouault, a poor Parisian painter and draughtsman, straddles the line between the two - capturing difficult subjects in a challenging manner, all whilst working alongside the likes of Henri Matisse and Albert Marquet.

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Coming of age under the tutelage of Gustave Moreau, a young Rouault became the Symbolist’s favourite student - later made the guardian of Paris’ Moreau Museum - whose dedication and open-mind struck the French great. Born in a cellar, after the destruction of his familial home in the 1871 Paris insurrection, Rouault’s painterly instincts were largely driven by his mother who saw artistic expression as a means of escaping their life on the breadline.


Escapism, through both intellectual and economic means, factored into his life, but rarely into his art, which often charged head-first towards the burning social issues of his time, particularly the people who were at the centre of them - prostitutes, clowns and other extremities of the marginalised. 


Starting out life as a glass painter, where heavily contoured lines are de rigour for the creation of these works - Rouault never left his formative schooling behind, integrating these dark lines into his paintings in what became a style that felt both immersive in its gloom and cerebral for the duality it evoked in his subjects.

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Inspired by the Fauvist movement by his teacher Moreau and his contemporary Matisse, Rouault painted with the style’s typically bright colours, often eschewing realism in favour of artistic interpretation. Yet, the artist undermined the convention's typically vivid saturation with his iconic contrasting dark outlines, giving the work a deep emotionality.


Always tied to the philosophical, the French artist’s works developed to contain more spiritual references. Jacques Maritain was a huge influence over this progression, with the writer and painter remaining friends for much of their lives. Maritain’s spiritual Catholicism can be seen in Rouault’s works towards the latter years of his artistic life, when the artist came to depict Jesus Christ and other similar religious figures and motifs. 


In art, strength often comes in numbers. Being a part of a movement can give artists credibility and exposure to boost their profile. Rouault may have been associated with various movements, but without being a central figure in any, his renown was always limited. His art was always his own though, a style uniquely his. Instinctive, unconstrained and raw, Rouault’s work may yet find its time.

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