French artist Georges Rouault was a pioneering expressionist painter and a major figure in modern printmaking.
Rouault’s work is immediately recognizable for the thick black brushstrokes that outline their subjects and the glass-like look of his colors. This is not mere coincidence; Rouault spent his teenage years as a stained glass maker’s apprentice. He used etching and aquatint to create works recognized widely as having unprecedented color harmonies and expressive power.
Rather than create pleasing “armchair” pictures like those of many of his contemporaries, Rouault applied his rough painterly style to religious subjects, clowns, and circus performers, using these motifs to reflect on religion, morality, and modern life. The theme of the circus was a major theme in Rouault’s work; he was fascinated by the contrast between the circus’ superficial brightness and the sadness of circus life. This portfolio reflected Rouault’s attempt to strip away the “spangles” of the clown’s costume and reveal the “reflection of paradise lost.”
This work is the tailpiece printed on page 25 of Rouault’s Cirque de l’Etoile Filante portfolio [Circus of the Shooting Star] series, published by Parisian art publisher and dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939). The series was introduced by seventeen color etchings with aquatint, and followed by 82 wood engravings that illustrate the text.
The Shooting Star Circus was intended as a collaboration between Georges Rouault and the poet André Suarès. Rouault drew the pictures from about October 1931 through March 1932, at which time he sent the drawings to Georges Aubert, the wood carver who made many of Rouault’s plates. But the project was marked by a catastrophe: Suarès’ narrative was filled with virulent polemics against many important figures in the art world, including Cocteau, Gide, and many others. As François Chapon wrote, Rouault’s publisher Ambroise Vollard “might have tolerated these attacks if the diatribe had not also been directed against America, whence came a large part of [Vollard’s] clientele”. Thus, Suarès’ text was abandoned and Rouault wrote the text (centered around his own poem “Cirque de l’Etoile Filante”). The printing of the work was completed in March 1936 (but the cover was dated 1938, thus causing these works to sometimes be dated to 1936 and other times to 1938).
Examples of this print can be found at the Museum of Modern Art and numerous other prominent institutions.