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Head of a Clown

Georges Rouault (1871–1958)

French, Fauvist
ca. 1907-1908
61.6 cm x 48.9 cm (24 3/8 in. x 19 3/8 in. x in.)
oil on paper on board

Not on view


Rouault worked this composition almost entirely from two oil pigments, blue and magenta, which he applied in gradations of saturated to highly diluted washes. In a few areas he has glued pieces of painted paper to the surface of the painting apparently to either change or augment the original composition. When a rotted gauze backing was removed in 1967, considerable brushwork was revealed on the back of this painting, suggesting that Rouault had used an abandoned larger work which he cut down. Although the design of this first painting is not clear, it may possibly represent a circus subject.

Rouault had a life-long fascination with circus imagry and especially the image of the clown. Often garishly made-up and painted with a sad expression, Rouault’s clowns serve as metaphors of the combined tragedy and comedy of the human condition, "the circus of life" as Rouault called it. Rouault observed that people, like clowns, disguise their true natures and inner tragedies behind masks with the semblances of joy and entertainment that they create for themselves. At times, Rouault employed the clown’s image as a generalized self-portrait. "I clearly recognized that the clown was myself," he wrote. "He was all of us. Just like the clown, we hide behind our own very personal masks." (For a study of the early twentieth-century artist as clown, cf. Jean Clair and Marcia Couëlle, The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown [New Haven, 2004].)

Georges Rouault was born in Paris in 1871. He apprenticed to stained-glass painters restoring medieval windows and attended evening classes at the École des Arts-Décoratifs as well as the École des Beaux-Arts in Gustave Moreau's (1826-1898) studio, where Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a fellow student. His predilection for luminous colors with black outlines as well as for religious themes had its origin in these experiences. In 1903 Rouault became the first curator of the Moreau Museum and participated in the foundation of the Salon d'Automne with Matisse. In 1904 he met the Catholic writer Léon Bloy (1846-1917) who had a great influence on him that redirected his art to the depiction of the tragedy of the human condition. At that year's Salon d'Automne, Rouault exhibited a large number of watercolors depicting prostitutes, clowns, and acrobats. After working briefly with the French Fauve artists, during which time he created the Dumbarton Oaks clown painting, Rouault evolved toward a more somber style, both in palette and subject matter. He primarily favored watercolor and diluted oil paint before 1918, after which he turned to more impasto oil paint as a medium. He died in Paris in 1958.

J. Carder

Venturi, Lionelli. Georges Rouault. New York: E. Weyhe, 1940, pl. 29, fig. 35.

Soby, James Thrall. Georges Rouault, Paintings and Prints. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1945, 114, no. 17 and 47 ill.

"Retrospective Exhibition, Rouault." Bulletin of the Art Division, Los Angeles County Museum, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer 1953), 11 ill.

Rouault retrospective exhibition 1953. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1953), 11, ill., and 28.

Dorival, Bernard. Cinq Études sur Georges Rouault. Paris, 1956, pl.1.

Courthion, Pierce. Georges Rouault. New York: H. N. Abrams, [1962], no. 39, ill.

Zverina, Frantisek. George Rouault. Prague, 1961, pl. 12.

Kang, Soo Yun. Rouault in Perspective: Contextual and Theoretical Study of His Art. Lanham, New York, and Oxford: International Scholars Publications, 2000, 74, fig. 19, and 75.

Flora, Holly and Soo Yun Kang. Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre, This Anguished World of Shadows. New York and London, 2006, Add. 2, 171, ill.

Schloesser, Stephen, ed. Mystic Masque, Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault, 1871-1958. Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts: McMullen Museum of Art, 2008, 469, no. 9.

Exhibition History
"Georges Rouault, Retrospective Loan Exhibition," Institute of Modern Art, Boston, 11/1940; The Phillips Gallery, Washington, D.C., 12/15/1940-1/15/1941; and San Francisco Museum of Art, 2/19-3/24/1941, no. 24.

Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1941.

"George Rouault," Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1/23-4/15/1945, no. 17.

"Georges Rouault Rétrospective," Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 3/2l-5/1/1952, no. 24.

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 5/9-6/30/1952, no. 24.

Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 7/9-10/26/1952, no. 29.

"Rouault Retrospective Exhibition 1953," Cleveland Museum of Art, 1/27-3/14/1953; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 3/31-5/31/1953; and Los Angeles County Museum, 7/2-8/16/1953.

"Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre, This Anguished World of Shadows," Museum of Biblical Art, New York, 3/30-5/28/2006, add. 2.

"Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault, 1871-1958," McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, 8/30-12/7/2008, no. 9.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Dikran Khan Kélékian, New York, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss as gift to Mildred Bliss, 12/1938.

Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 12/1938-11/29/1940.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.

House Collection