GEORGES ROUAULT (1871-1958) Clown de profil (Painted between 1938 - 1939)

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Lot 32AR
Clown de profil

Sold for £ 428,750 (US$ 536,500) inc. premium
Clown de profil
oil on paper laid down on canvas
80 x 58cm (31 1/2 x 22 13/16in).
Painted between 1938 - 1939


  • The work is accompanied by a certificate from the late Madame Isabelle Rouault.

    The artist's studio.
    Galerie Ambroise Vollard, Paris (8 July 1939).
    Achim Moeller Fine Art, New York.
    Liuba & Ernesto Wolf Collection; their sale, Artcurial, Paris, 1 December 2014, lot 168.
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

    'Clowns were the dream of Rouault's life' - Lionello Venturi

    Rouault was drawn to the circus and the figure of the clown from childhood, and it was to be a theme he would return to throughout his artistic oeuvre, interspersed between depictions of religious motifs, grotesques, prostitutes and landscapes. As a young painter in Paris he frequented the Cirque Médrano which attracted many of the Impressionist artists, but like Picasso, Rouault felt more of an affinity with the less polished travelling fairgrounds of his youth, the nomadic troupes of players who moved from town to town. As well as a celebrated motif in his paintings, Rouault published three collections of prints on the subject, in which he invariably focused on the performers close-up, examining their expression in full, rather than the decorative surroundings in which they played.

    Appearing in his work as early as 1902, Rouault would explore the theme of the circus through both group tableaus of players and through solo portraits of the Pierrot, the lover from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte, whose stock characters were well known throughout twentieth century France. The cap, white smock and ruff of the Pierrot is donned by the clown of the present work, but instead of the rebuffed lover of the 17th century comedy, in Clown de profil Rouault presents us with an ennobled, proud figure. By contrast, Rouault's earliest clowns, such as the haunting Head of a tragic clown (1904), illustrated the intrinsic sadness he saw in their lifestyle: an eternal fool living on the outskirts of society, having to present a painted brave face to the world. It is thought that the artist saw these clowns as a self-portrait, much in the manner of Chagall and Picasso, and it has been suggested that he even imbued his clowns with his own features. The devastating pathos of Head of a tragic clown certainly chimes with Rouault's writing in 1905:

    'This nomad caravan, parked by the roadside, the old horse grazing on the meagre grass, the old clown sitting in a corner of his caravan in the process of mending his sparkling and gaudy costume, this contrast of brilliant, scintillating objects, made to amuse, and a life of infinite sadness... I saw quite clearly that the 'Clown' was me, was us, nearly all of us... This rich and glittering costume, it is given to us by life itself, we are all more or less clowns, we all wear a glittering costume, but if we are surprised as I surprised the old clown, oh lord! Who would dare to say that he was not struck, even to the heart, by an immeasurable pity' (Georges Rouault quoted in B. Dorival & I. Rouault, Rouault: L'oeuvre peint, Monte Carlo, 1988, p. 40).

    Conversely the artist found the roaming lifestyle of the circus troupe appealing, representing freedom and an escape from the social and religious subjects on which he otherwise focussed. Carved with bold outlines and bursting with colour, 'when he paints clowns [...] colors grow rich and resplendent, almost as if the artist, laying aside his crusader's arms for a moment, were relaxing in the light of the sun and letting it flood into his work' (L. Venturi, Rouault, Lausanne, 1959, p. 51). The startling colours of the present work, which are only emphasised by the dark background and contours with which they contrast, illustrate the later trend in Rouault's work towards a brightening of palette and mood. The intensity and variety of hues is astonishing, with almost fluorescent red curlicues denoting the clown's cap and lips and the stage beyond, while vivid yellow flecks the upper corners and contrasts with a smattering of cobalt blue; elsewhere speckles of bright purple and lime green contrast against the burnt orange of the figure's neck, chin and nose. A myriad of colours can be seen in each small segment of the composition.

    Thick black outlines separate the lozenges of colour in Clown de profil and surely reflect the young Rouault's time as an apprentice to a glassmaker aged 14, where he assisted in the restoration of medieval stained glass windows. The artist acknowledged the lasting influence this imparted: 'I was a painter and glass artist, a wonderful memory; it was a brief phase, but it left me with a legendary, epic and if I may say traditionalist mark' (Georges Rouault quoted in 1925, B. Dorival & I. Rouault, op. cit., p. 9). In what became his signature style, Rouault would go on to adopt strong black contours to define and separate his paintings, breaking his compositions into facets of glowing colour against what appears an otherwise dark background.

    The artist's experience with stained glass windows was appropriate for a young man whose deep-seated religious faith showed itself even in his earliest works as a student. Rouault had a love of Medieval and Gothic art, and through this found an affinity with his tutor at the École des Beaux-Arts, Gustave Moreau. Although Moreau was an academician whose work displayed restrained colour and an idealised beauty, Rouault developed a close friendship with the teacher and a shared admiration of past Masters and spiritual subjects. His death in 1898 was such a devastating blow to Rouault that he sought refuge in two health retreats where he painted frenetically, focussing on the darker side of society with subjects such as prostitutes and the corrupt justice system. This was a time of violent draughtsmanship, in keeping with his association with the Fauves with whom he showed in 1905. Although not officially a member, parallels can certainly be found in his aggressive slashes of paint and bold palette, although his moral and political subject matter differed from the more decorative landscapes of his peers.

    From the harsh realism of these early works, Rouault slowly discovered increasingly simplified, less tangled forms, and a lighter palette - 'the palette soars and sings, where once it had prowled and slithered in the mud' (E. A. Jewell, Georges Rouault, New York, 1945, n. p.). The weaving network of lines give way to the stronger contours which lend his paintings a certain monumentality. Oil paint became the artist's medium of choice over gouache and watercolour from around 1910 onwards, allowing not only a new intensity of colour but also enabling Rouault to constantly rework his pictures. He had a famous reluctance to declare a work finished and would often return to rework a composition frequently and over many years, leading to a heavily textured and tactile surface. Only reluctantly proclaimed to be finished in 1937, the year before the current work was painted, Rouault's masterpiece Le Vieux Roi was worked and reworked for more than 20 years, having first begun in 1916. Just as in Clown de profil we see an imposing figure who fills the picture plane in Pharaonic-like profile. The surface is heavily textured, encrusted, and in places 'appears scarred, even as if it had been slapped on with the painter's hand. It is one of the most monumental works ever produced by the brush of an artist' (P. Courthion, Georges Rouault, London, 1978, p. 116). It is said that in 1952 Rouault stood in front of the canvas on display at the Carnegie Institute and murmured 'Yes, here I think I said pretty much what I wanted to say' (Georges Rouault quoted in B. Dorival & I. Rouault, op. cit., p. 131).

    In the present work layers and layers of paint shimmer underneath each other, hinting at depths beneath and reminding the viewer of Max Ernst's vibrating grattages or the oscillating surface of works such as Jackson Pollock's Full Fathom Five. The surface is highly tactile and worked, as ridges of impasto paint applied by brush and palette knife collide with paper edges over the canvas. By the 1930s it seems that method and form have started to overtake Rouault's original social or moral intention for the composition – lozenges of white paint build the clown's ruff and sleeves yet appear to float and hover above the black contours, just as the green-grey profile of his temple and cheek sits on top of the composition, a separate element in its own right.

    The close-up composition we see here became more dominant in Rouault's oeuvre from the 1920s onwards, as he preferred to focus on single figures rather than larger circus views, reinforcing the essentially solitary nature of the clown. The backdrop and context becomes incidental, and this paring down of non-essential elements was intended to focus the viewer on the essence of the sitter, as the artist expressed in a poem he sent in a letter Edouard Schuré:

    'I have the defect (defect perhaps... in any case
    it causes me abysmal suffering)
    of leaving no one his glittering costume,
    be he king or emperor. I want to see the soul of the man
    in front of me' (Georges Rouault quoted in B. Dorival & I. Rouault, ibid., p. 40).

    Clown de profil was painted in 1938-1939, just as Rouault was gaining international recognition following a room solely dedicated to his work at the 1937 Petit Palais Masters of Independent Art exhibition and a 1938 exhibition of his prints at MOMA, but this success came as the world was on the brink of war once more. His son and sons-in-law were conscripted, while Rouault retreated to the Côte D'Azur in 1940 before returning to his house in Frenay to find it occupied by Nazi troops. Despite the climate of building political upheaval, his works from the 1930s show a new harmony and sense of contemplation, certainly present in the current work where the clown assumes a monumental or regal bearing, far removed from the pathos of Rouault's early clowns, and instead assumes the role of a spiritual guide. The religious connotations of the stained-glass delineation, together with the nobility of the clown, elevate him to a hybrid of both performer and Christ-like figure.

    Clown de profil is a seminal work which foregrounds not only one of Rouault's most identifiable subjects but also showcases his mature painting style, evolved through an increasing use of oil and love of reworking the paint surface; a lightened palette and characteristic bold black contours. The subject of the clown as both common man and religious icon, together with the tactility of the composition, unite to perfectly illustrate Paul Fierens' claim that Rouault 'paints man as a mixture of spirit and clay, of heart and guts' (Paul Fierens quoted in P. Courthion, op. cit. p. 255).
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