Rouault lived a solitary life, creating an oeuvre unique in its mystic Expressionism (he was a devout Catholic). Throughout his career, but particularly in the 1930s, he was fascinated by circus people, often depicting them backstage. One day, he wrote of an old clown he had seen: “I saw clearly that the ‘Clown’ was me, was us [...] almost all of us [...] This rich, sequinned costume is given us by life.” The painting is remarkable for its subject, since Rouault rarely painted circus artists in performance. In the ring, a lady equestrian and other acrobats are performing; an athlete, hands on hips, dominates the centre of the composition. The upper corners of the canvas are set off, evoking the big top, as though we viewers were spectators in the seats. The thick black outlines around the shapes and areas of colour are characteristic of his style, which recalls stained glass (Rouault had been an apprentice in that craft). The depiction of the circus thus becomes for the artist as solemn as a religious rite, a metaphorical, disenchanted vision of life’s trivialities.
© Estate of Georges Rouault / SOCAN (2020)