The Touch And Texture Of Georges Rouault

In our century Christian art has fallen on hard times. It must wrestle not only with the perennial question of the relation of faith and art but also with the modern limiting of subject matter to personal experience. In a day when the artist prizes his individuality and vaunts his obscurity, can there be Christian art? What possible role can it play?

Georges Rouault (1871–1958) was one of the rare artists who combined a real faith with a modern sensitivity. Born in a poor suburb of Paris during the bombardment of the Paris Commune, Rouault was of hardy Briton stock and was raised in an artisan’s environment. His first job (in 1885) was as an apprentice in a stained-glass factory. All of this did much to help him develop his feel for the painful texture of life.

But not until 1898, after the death of his beloved teacher Gustave Moreau, did this emotional sensitivity to life touch his painting. By that time he had spent almost a decade in art school; he knew drawing and art history, but as he put it: “I had not taken the time to watch people and life. I was acquainted with religious history … but I knew nothing of suffering.”

His experience with life—with men in the workyards and the barges—touched off a profound religious transformation in the artist. As he explained it: “When I was about thirty, I felt a stroke of lightning, or of grace, depending on one’s perspective. The face of the world changed for me. I saw everything that I had seen before, but in a different form and with a different harmony.”

What was the nature of this experience? Clearly its root was religious. Rouault was a believing Catholic, and while studying with Moreau he had sought out a priest in order to prepare himself ...

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