Georges Rouault is best known for his Christian imagery, his mythological subjects, and his depictions of everyday figures rendered in layers of brilliant, luminous color with thick, black outlines. In his paintings and prints, he commented on the human condition, contrasting the noble and the ignoble, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek. With his monumental tome Miserere, Rouault explored themes of suffering and redemption that are reflected in his work overall.
Miserere contains fifty-eight illustrations, which were first made as watercolors and oil paintings and then transferred to copperplates by means of photogravure. Rouault reworked these plates repeatedly over two decades, using aquatint, etching, and engraving to achieve rich blacks and grays. Originally titled Miserere et Guerre (Miserere and War), this book, a collaboration with the artist's dealer Ambroise Vollard, was begun in 1914 but not published until after Vollard's death in 1939. The Bible, Christian theology, popular French songs, Greco-Roman mythology, and the tragic context of World War I all served as sources for the moralistic and spiritualist content of Rouault's images for this project, as well as for the short captions that comprise the text. The plate shown here, which mocks a soldier in a stiff collar, exemplifies Rouault's critique of the vanity and arrogance of those who pursue power.
The artist's often unorthodox use of techniques, learned in part from the many master printers with whom he worked, enabled him to achieve highly expressive effects. While he experimented widely with color, his choice of black-and-white illustrations for Miserere seems particularly fitting for the subject, and these prints remain his most admired today. Until 1940, when Rouault returned almost exclusively to painting, he completed approximately three hundred sixty-five prints, nearly half of which were published in illustrated books.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Jennifer Roberts, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 87.