The Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection all began with one painting by Georges Rouault. Although I had picked up numerous religious art objects as souvenirs in my travels, encountering Rouault’s magnificent Christ et docteur made me take the plunge into serious art collecting. One of three paintings from 1937, showing Christ and a Pharisee, this particular study in oil on paper, mounted on canvas, summoned up for me the secret nighttime meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. In Rouault’s rendering of the scene, I could just see the somber Jesus, explaining with his all-embracing arm, how God’s love for the world meant the sacrifice of his Only-Begotten Son. Only Rembrandt could equal this!
The more Rouault works I collect, the more my admiration for this artist of faith grows. Rouault is, for me, the master of contemporary sacred art. From his early claustrophobic, deep sea-colored portraits of prostitutes through the rich grey-black studies in suffering and atonement in the Miserere print cycle to his later paint-crusted, jewel-toned biblical landscapes like Paysage biblique, his artistic career traces a moving and humane trajectory from despair to redemption unequaled in modern art. His numerous studies, alone, of the Crucifixion, including Christ en croix (1925), Christ en croix (1932), and Christ en croix (1936), are a treasure trove of contemplative riches.
Born in a basement in a working class district of Paris during the Communard Uprising of 1871, Rouault came to love art by studying his maternal grandfather’s collection of art reproductions and was apprenticed as a teenager to a stained-glass workshop. He achieved early success, working in the style of his art teacher and mentor French Symbolist Gustave Moreau, but a dramatic shift toward brutally-rendered expressionistic views of Parisian lowlife in 1904 left one-time admirers shocked and angered. Roman Catholic Social Realist Writer Leon Bloy denounced what he termed Rouault’s “leap into utter darkness,” blaming it on a “mental aberration.” Rouault had embarked on the solitary road he would follow to the end of his life.
Rouault’s style of art-making defied conventional labeling. He could not be conveniently classified as a Post-Impressionist or a Fauvist or an Expressionist, though there are, certainly, elements from all these art movements to be seen in his work. When most of his contemporaries embraced abstract art, Rouault remained, stubbornly, figurative in his compositions, even if what he depicts is more true than real. In an age when artists were fleeing the church in droves, Rouault‘s religious faith only deepened.
In 1917, Avant-Garde Art Impressario Ambroise Vollard added Rouault to his stable of promising modernists, which included Picasso and Matisse. Their patron-artist relationship was never an easy one and ended in a landmark 1947 court decision, affirming the artist’s right to ownership of his own work, against the claims of Vollard‘s heirs. The collaboration did result in a splendid series of illustrated, portfolio-format books and fine art suites in which Rouault extended the boundaries of modern graphics. The prints in my collection come from the Miserere suite, begun in 1914 and printed in 1948, Passion by Andres Saures, a series of illustrated meditations on the death of Christ, printed in 1939, and an edition of French Poet Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (produced after Rouault’s death in 1966).
Rouault was one of those rare artists who achieved success in his lifetime. A 1947 monograph by the Modern Art Museum in New York concluded that “in relation to other living artists, [Rouault] emerges as one of the few major figures in 20th century art.” What Rouault once called his “outrageous lyricism” was soon scorned by the advocates of Abstract Expressionism, who came to control the art world in the 1950s-1960s. His undiluted sacred imagery does not seem to suit sardonic, post-modern tastes, either. Not a single one of Rouault’s canvases now hangs on the walls of the new MoMA, and only a small portion of his religious work in Paris museum collections is on display these days. The rest are stored in vaults, lost to sacred art pilgrims
We can, at least, be thankful for two splendid shows, marking the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death in 2008, an exhibition at the Pinacotheque de Paris of masterpieces from the Idemitsu collection in Japan, where Rouault still enjoys an enormous following, and the Boston College show, Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault. The catalogue for the latter exhibit offers an impressive selection of scholarly articles, leading me to hope a revival of critical interest in this seriously neglected sacred artist may now be underway.