My Favourite Painting: Rodney Peppé

The children's author on a key work by Georges Rouault which entranced him before he knew anything of its creator.

Rodney Peppé on ‘The Old King’ by Georges Rouault

As an art student in the early 1950s, I visited Paris and, by chance, came across a small gallery exhibiting paintings by Rouault. I knew nothing of his life or work and was amazed by the force of his broad brushstrokes over thick impasto, bordered by heavy black lines like a stained-glass window.

Later, I learned more about him, his Catholicism and Humanistic beliefs manifested in images of tragic clowns, sad prostitutes and corrupt judges. Then, I saw this wonderfully rich painting, which inspired me to produce a thesis incorporating my own copies of his work. The Parisian gallery where I saw my first Rouaults may or may not still be there, but the images of suffering humanity will always remain with me.

Rodney Peppé is an author and illustrator of more than 80 children’s books and the creator of mechanical toys and automata

John McEwen on ‘The Old King’

The son of a cabinetmaker, Georges Rouault was born in Paris. Although of modest means, his grandfather built up a collection of Honoré Daumier’s lithograph prints and Rouault would later say he ‘went first to school with Daumier’.

After apprenticing as a stained-glass maker – evident in this painting, with its sonorous colours and black demarcations – he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His tutor was the Symbolist Gustave Moreau, a painter of Biblical and mythological fantasies renowned for tolerant and intelligent teaching. The exceptional bond that was formed between pupil and master was confirmed when Rouault was nominated the curator of the Moreau Museum in Paris after Moreau’s death in 1898.

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One of Moreau’s legacies was the notion of colour as an expression of emotion. A room of paintings at the 1905 Salon d’Automne by such former pupils as Matisse, Marquet, Derain and Rouault caused a furore and earned them the collective nickname Les Fauves (the wild beasts). They did not consider themselves a group, however, and Rouault, in particular, remained aloof, preferring glowing rather than garish colours.

He was a practising Catholic and, from 1917, devoted himself to religious paintings, especially of Christ’s Passion. They were private meditations; he was never an official Church artist.

The year 1917 coincided with his signing a contract with famous art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Vollard preferred the earlier paintings, but it was at his urging that The Old King was completed after 20 years. It was only in the post-war years, after Vollard’s death, that Rouault was acclaimed a modern master of Christian art. On his death, he received the rare accolade of a state funeral.

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