Landscape with Negress Carrying a Jug on Her Head [Paysage avec Négresse Portant une Cruche sur la Tête] is plate number 13 from Ambroise Vollard’s famous Les Réincarnations du Père Ubu.
French artist Georges Rouault was a pioneering expressionist painter and a major figure in modern printmaking. His work is immediately recognizable for the thick black brushstrokes that outline their subjects. But rather than create pleasing “armchair” pictures like those of many of his contemporaries, Rouault applied his dramatic and intense 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.”
In 1896, French playwright Alfred Jarry premiered his play, Ubu Roi (“Ubu the King”). It was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, causing a near-riot in the audience. Ubu Roi is a comic and bizarre play. Ubu Roi is infantile, glutinous, dishonest, greedy, a bully, an ingrate, a coward, and abusive of those weaker and even more cowardly than he. And, most of all, Jarry’s Ubu Roi is a metaphor for Jarry’s view of the modern man. It is a satire of the exercise of power and greed by the bourgeoisie abusing the authority engendered by their success. Many audience members were horrified by the childishness, obscenity, and disrespect permeating the play, but to others it was an event of revolutionary importance. The play became infamous and its author an avant-garde hero. Indeed, it is now recognized as a pivotal event to the start of Twentieth Century modernism and Surrealism.
Parisian art publisher and dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) was fascinated—even obsessed—with Ubu Roi. In 1932, Vollard published his own sequel to Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the Réincarnations de Père Ubu. Vollard recruited Rouault to prepare illustrations for it. Vollard’s version of the story contained twenty-two illustrations by Rouault.
Rouault’s illustrations for Réincarnations de Père Ubu marked Rouault’s earliest use of photogravure techniques, and display a combination of etching and aquatint. The 1955 edition, however, is almost purely aquatint, without the etched and engraved lines of the 1932 edition.
Rouault began working on the Reincarnations of Père Ubu in 1918; he returned to the plate and produced the final version in 1928. It was not published until 1932, though, when an edition of 225 pencil-signed impressions was made along with 305 portfolios for Reincarnations de Père Ubu containing suites of the etchings on Arches and Rives papers. This example, however, was from an edition of 210 from reduced format plates published by Antoine Vollard in 1955 on fine Vélin paper. 110 sets of the 1955 edition were numbered in Arabic numerals for the Société Normande des Amis du Livre and 100 sets were numbered in Roman numerals. This example, though, lacks numbering, which might put it in the group of sixty additional sets which were issued on colored or tinted paper.