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ARTISTS / Rouault, Georges

French 1871-1958

In 1916 Rouault left Versailles and in 1917 he signed a contract with the famous dealer Ambroise Vollard which was to provide him with freedom to work for many years. Rouault agreed to give Vollard everything he produced in return for a salary; Vollard even went so far as to provide him with a studio on the top floor of his own house, where he could work undisturbed. As the artist was later to discover, there were certain drawbacks to this arrangement. Vollard was a jealous patron - he liked to monopolize the work of the artists he favoured and to keep it from prying eyes. The result was that for twenty years people judged Rouault by old work, rather than by what he was producing currently. Vollard had a passion for fine illustrated books, and it was natural that he should encourage Rouault to turn in this direction. During the first decade of their association Rouault concentrated mainly on graphic work: during this period he produced the plates for Miserere, which is generally considered his finest achievement. From 1918 onwards, he also returned to making paintings of sacred subjects. Some attention did come his way from outside: there was a scattering of exhibitions; in 1921 the first monograph on his work was published; in 1924 there was a retrospective at the Galerie Druet (Paris), where he had shown before; and he was awarded the Legion of Honour. In 1926 he published his book Souvenirs intimes, and in 1929 Diaghilev commissioned him to design his last major project, The Prodigal Son, with music by Prokofiev and choreography by Balanchine. It was not until 1937 that Rouault's reputation took a great stride forward: forty two paintings, all in a style which was relatively 'new' for the critics and public but long established so far as the artist himself was concerned, were shown as part of the large 'Exposition des Artistes Independents', staged in connection with the Paris Exposition Universelle. In 1939 Vollard was killed in an accident and the artist was thus released from his contract. It left behind it an important question: what was to happen to the great mass of unfinished work which was now in the possession of Vollard's heirs? In 1947 Rouault brought a suit against them to recover this material. Rouault had always been very concerned with the artist's rights over his own creation. In 1943 he wrote:


"I sometimes dream, in these last years of my life, of upholding a thesis at the Sorbonne on the spiritual defence of works of art and the artist's rights before the law, and the ways and means of securing these rights, so that those who come after us may be better protected."

He succeeded perhaps better than he had hoped. He asked the courts for the return of 800 unfinished and unsigned paintings which had remained in Vollard's possession at the time of his death, and his right to them was eventually conceded. He only failed to recover those which had already been sold. In November 1948, to make his point quite clear, he ceremonially burned before witnesses 315 of the canvases he had recovered. Rouault's reputation was not damaged by the war. He had already had a few exhibitions abroad in the 1930s, and in 1940-41 there were Rouault retrospectives in Boston, Washington and San Francisco. In the immediately post-war period his sometimes sombre vision was in tune with the times. There was a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1945, and another, shared with Braque, at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1946. in 1948 he exhibited at the Venice Biennale and travelled to Italy for the first time.

When his eightieth birthday was celebrated at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in 1951, the celebrations were organized by the Centre Catholique des Intellectuels Francais. But the French state honoured him too: he was promoted to the rank of Commander of the Legion of Honour. In the 1950s, what had been a trickle of retrospective exhibitions became a flood, and when Rouault died in February 1958, he was given a state funeral.

- From Edward Lucie-Smith, "Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists"


Georges Rouault: Oeuvre Gravé. [Complete] Graphic Work.
Chapon, François and Rouault, Isabelle.
Monte Carlo: Sauret, 1978. Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, distribution. Cloth. 2 vols. 340, 378 pp.

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