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Rouault, Georges - VM - Irena Tippett

Georges Rouault: The Old King

A Broken and Contrite Heart

by Irena Tippett

With good reason his friend André Suarès dubbed Georges Rouault the ‘monk of Modern Art’. During the first decades of the 20th century, when God was increasingly forgotten and the human image dismantled or erased, Rouault turned his full attention with great compassion toward the broken human image observed around him, seeking its heart and its healing. Among the paintings from Rouault’s long artistic career, The Old King stands out as arguably the most powerful, the most mysterious, and the most personal.

Some of the mystery of The Old King is found in the rare choice of a king as subject. There is another king in Rouault’s oeuvre from this same time period, Nous croyant rois (We believe ourselves to be kings), belonging to the great etched aquatint series the Miserere.

Framed by the same archway, the two kings share title and regalia, crown and gold chain, but that is all. We can rightly see this second proud and leering king as a good illustration of Rouault’s statement from 1905 about kings and emperors: “[T]he grander and more exalted in his person, the more I fear for his soul.” The leering king can be seen as a foil for the old king.

The old king is found alone with eyes closed. The strained lines on his face suggest a great weariness. Dressed in rich scarlet robes and wearing a crown ornamented with gold, he exudes nobility, yet his crown is too tight and his clothes are ill-fitting. He is bedecked with jewellery, one strand of which visually slices his proud neck from throat to nape. He sits without sword or sceptre. Uncomfortable in his kingly estate, perhaps he has recognized the peril of high position.

But there is more. The connection between The Old King and the Miserere continues beyond the leering king. Both masterworks sat as companions in Rouault’s studio as objects of the artist’s intense labour and meditation for over two decades. Both projects have to do with sin and repentance and both seem immersed in Psalm 51, the great psalm of repentance written by King David after Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. This psalm is also commonly called the ‘Miserere’, referring to the Latin word for ‘Have mercy’ from David’s cry of repentance:

Have mercy on me, O God according to your steadfast love! (Psalm 51:1)

Rouault initiates his great Miserere series with these same words and what follows is a visual litany of sorrowing, suffering, and sinful people, punctuated by images of the suffering Christ. Given the depth of David’s cry of repentance quoted at the outset of Rouault’s Miserere, there is acute pain for us to witness the apparent disconnect between the deep suffering of Christ and the parade of broken and sinful people completely oblivious to him. The leering king stands among them. They do not cry out to God.

The Old King is different. It actually seems to embody Psalm 51 with almost every line of the psalm envisioned in the painting. This king sits alone, hunched, and in prayer. Through his bent posture we can perceive a humbled soul and, through his broken shape, we see a broken spirit. His closed eyes lead us inward to his repentant heart. Around the king there is a brightening glow of blue and gold, the heavenly blue reflected also on his breast. Delineated in thick black strokes the sinner king shines like a saint in a stained-glass window. In his hands we observe a cluster of white flowers. He has found cleansing and peace.

It is not surprising that The Old King is often thought to be King David himself, so perfectly does his demeanour match that of the aging psalm-writer. But Rouault tilts us in another direction, that is, in the direction of our own hearts. As Rouault writes in the Miserere, “Are we not all convicts, believing ourselves to be kings?” Like Nathan the prophet who came to David, Rouault through his portrait of The Old King inspires us to seek a quiet room and there to cry out our own Miserere. And as in The Old King we are assured of obtaining peace with God.

A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

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Georges Rouault, The Old King, 1916-1936, oil on canvas, 76.84 × 53.98 cm. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

Georges Rouault, Nous croyant rois, from Miserere, 1923, etching & aquatint, 58.4 × 41.9 cm. Various collections.

Georges Rouault was born in Paris in 1871. A solitary man, he rarely left the city, keeping company with his wife Marthe, their four children and a few close friends, notably Gustave Moreau, Léon Bloy, André Suarès and Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. Early in life Rouault was apprenticed at a stained-glass workshop for five years after which he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts as Gustave Moreau’s star pupil. Rouault’s spiritual awakening can be attributed to meeting Catholic writer Léon Bloy, author of La Femme Pauvre, around 1904, and his interest in social issues began at this time. His art also underwent dramatic changes. Rouault himself experienced poverty until he was contracted to his patron and art dealer Ambroise Vollard who opened to the artist the second floor of his house for use as a studio. It was there that Rouault worked on The Old King and the Miserere. Rouault died in 1958.

Irena Tippett has a Master's degree in Art History from the University of Toronto, but it was during studies at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. that she discovered the beauty of her field in relation to her faith. While most of her energy is presently spent in women's ministry at St. John's Anglican Church in Vancouver, B.C. Canada, she continues to lecture from time to time out of this newly found passion. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation Advent 2, 2021