The Touch And Texture Of Georges Rouault

In our century Christian art has fallen on hard times. It must wrestle not only with the perennial question of the relation of faith and art but also with the modern limiting of subject matter to personal experience. In a day when the artist prizes his individuality and vaunts his obscurity, can there be Christian art? What possible role can it play?

Georges Rouault (1871–1958) was one of the rare artists who combined a real faith with a modern sensitivity. Born in a poor suburb of Paris during the bombardment of the Paris Commune, Rouault was of hardy Briton stock and was raised in an artisan’s environment. His first job (in 1885) was as an apprentice in a stained-glass factory. All of this did much to help him develop his feel for the painful texture of life.

But not until 1898, after the death of his beloved teacher Gustave Moreau, did this emotional sensitivity to life touch his painting. By that time he had spent almost a decade in art school; he knew drawing and art history, but as he put it: “I had not taken the time to watch people and life. I was acquainted with religious history … but I knew nothing of suffering.”

His experience with life—with men in the workyards and the barges—touched off a profound religious transformation in the artist. As he explained it: “When I was about thirty, I felt a stroke of lightning, or of grace, depending on one’s perspective. The face of the world changed for me. I saw everything that I had seen before, but in a different form and with a different harmony.”

What was the nature of this experience? Clearly its root was religious. Rouault was a believing Catholic, and while studying with Moreau he had sought out a priest in order to prepare himself for his first communion. The influence during this time of Léon Bloy and of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain led him to an evangelical Catholicism. His life was changed, and his sensitivity as an artist was transformed.

But it would be a mistake to try to understand this change by his verbal confession. Only rarely does he refer to his faith in words. His friend Claude Roulet tells us that Rouault spoke of his faith only three or four times in twenty years. In part this may have been due to his innate taciturnity about intimate questions. But more important, as an artist he made his work his primary confession. He once said: “If I have always been reluctant to discuss these questions, it is because our language is form, color, harmony.” And: “Images and colors, for a painter, are his means of being, of living, of thinking and of feeling.”

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What then do we see in his painting? Here too we find surprises. Especially in his early work, his art evinces a dark and melancholy view of life. His musings reflect “a cry in the night, a stifled sob. A suppressed laugh. In this world every day, a thousand unknown persons that are worth more than I labor on and die at the task.” One may wonder if an outlook like this reflects Christianity. Isn’t a Christian supposed to be happy?

Rouault’s contemporaries asked the same question. Some of them—perhaps they were Christians—wondered when he would start showing his “better side.” Rouault’s answer is worth pondering:

“Perhaps one day far off when a true and genuine inner peace will control the mind … of the pilgrim, far from the prostitution of the world. When force will be less visible and more intuitive, secret and discrete, then perhaps I will show my ‘better’ side. For what we see with our eyes and think we touch with our diseased hands and weigh so precisely, is not all there is in this clever and mechanized world.”

Of course, “more than the eyes can see” for Rouault included the reality of Christ’s suffering for sin. In his directly religious painting, Rouault was primarily a painter of the incarnation and passion of Christ. Heads of Christ, portrayals of Christ on the cross, all focusing on the Lord’s sufferings, predominate. Here too one might ask: Why the emphasis on the dark side? Isn’t Christianity about healing and resurrection as well as suffering and death?

Indeed it is. Rouault knew this—he believed and painted the resurrection. But he also knew what his beloved Pascal had felt, that as long as there is suffering in the world the pains of Christ are important. In Pascal’s words, “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world and we should not sleep during that time.” For Rouault it was the logic of human experience (or should we say its illogic) that drove him to the cross. He brooded:

So little righteous

And certainly helpless, the poor wretch

With the best of intentions,

Trips and falls more than once.

Like Jesus on the road to Calvary

Under the weight of the cross

Wanting to take on our sufferings.

Perhaps such reflections are difficult for us because we have come to believe that Christian things must be “nice.” Of course, that is easily enough said by Christians who are well fed and free. But for many people life is not nice, and Rouault felt this deeply. His faith was an attempt to find in Christ a way to make some sense of life filled with misery.

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But it would be a mistake to leave the impression that Rouault’s painting is only dark. If his world is often dark, there is usually a light in the sky. At times (especially in his later works) the light becomes so bright that the whole canvas has a luminous quality. But it was the misery that captured his artistic imagination and brought it to the cross.

It is easy to criticize this emphasis. Christ’s death does more than illumine misery; it atones for sin. And sin is more than suffering; it is also rebellion against God. But these criticisms, while they may be true, are somehow beside the point. Rouault was an artist, not a theologian. His world was the concrete world of flesh and tears. He dealt—as all artists must—with personal and visible reality, with shapes, not with ideas.

We must not expect more from Christian art than it can give us. Rouault’s art records one man’s experience. It is a witness of a personal faith, not a revelation of objective truth. And all human witness is limited. When the Gospel enters a life it comes through a narrow door. And since no one person’s experience is the sum of religious truth, no witness to Christ is perfect. While a witness can point to Christ, it is the Word of God—not the witness—that the Spirit uses to convert others.

But for all that, art can be the visual expression of one person’s faith. We cannot escape it with Rouault. Throughout his work a vivid sense of the reality of sin and grace is as concrete as the figures who fill his canvases. Miserere pictures for us the reality of Rouault’s faith. A blind man reaches out to touch Christ. The caption reads: “Lord, it is you. I recognize you.” That is Rouault’s faith: concrete, intuitive, as sure as the sense of touch. Calvin could have been referring to Rouault when he spoke of the Christian’s knowing the fullness of God in Christ. He wrote: “The believing soul recognizes the presence of God indubitably and, as one may say, touches him with his hand.”


William A. Dyrness is the author of “Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation” (Eerdmans, 1971).

Larry Norman, And …

A new Larry Norman album generally creates a stir among Jesus music freaks and critics, and In Another Land (SRA 2001), perhaps his best LP to date, should be no exception. He now records on the Solid Rock label (distributed, as are most of the best Jesus rock records, by Word). The controversial Norman explains “Solid Rock” on the inside record slipcase. Part of his defense is worth noting:

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“Music is one of the most strategic art forms we have today. It is more widely popular than literature, cinema, poetry, or any of the other art forms. It is also the most portable. Radios fit into back pockets, cassette players weigh less than a textbook, and almost every car has a radio. Most people have access to some kind of record player.”

And like it or not, rock music is what comes from most of these radios, cassettes, and record players.

To me Larry Norman is the best Jesus rock artist around. With a little help from modern technology he manages to change his voice to suit song or mood. His lyrics are always clever and effectively imagistic. No other song shows this success so well as “The Sun Began to Rain”: “A thief fell out of Heaven with some loaded dice/but the lamb rolled a seven back to Paradise/the bread was finally leavened so I had a slice/and the sun began to rain” (verse one). The superbly played loose honky-tonk piano and the vocal technique match the lyrics exactly.

That’s another of Norman’s strengths. He knows how to arrange both his music and his albums. “The Sun Began to Rain” opens side two. With no break he goes right into cut two, “Shot Down,” with an early rock beat and sound. The contrast works.

In “Six Sixty Six” a simple guitar accompaniment of arpeggios shifts between verses to a country-pickin’ flavor. Throughout the album the guitar interludes are well placed and paced, and the one in the lead cut, “The Rock That Doesn’t Roll,” briefly approaches good innovative jazz. The only weakness of this LP is that some of the songs have been previously recorded.

Norman also produced Randy Stonehill’s latest album, Welcome to Paradise (SRA 2002), also on the Solid Rock label. Stonehill doesn’t have the easy way with lyrics that Norman does. His have a studied feel, and the images seem labored. Stonehill uses one style more consistently than Norman, but it wears well. Norman should have paced the album better, mixing long cuts with short ones. That’s the main weakness of the first side. But “Keep Me Runnin’,” which runs nearly six minutes, wouldn’t be as effective if shorter.

Both albums include love songs. But for a larger dose of Christian love music try The Greatest of These Is Love (Myrrh, MSA-6565). That album has songs from nine contemporary Christian artists. Or dip into Danny Taylor’s latest record, A Time For Love (Tempo, S-102). The songs on these albums are a little too much syrup for me, but people who like The Lettermen and other love-song groups should like them.

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Originally an ABC album, White Horse by David OMartian is now on the Myrrh label (MSA-6564). OMartian did a superb job producing and arranging his music. He showed selectivity sensitivity by including such love songs as “Fat City” along with religious numbers.

Do you remember “Alley Oop!,” “Along Comes Mary,” or “Cherish”? Well, Gary S. Paxton was involved in one way or another with all those million-sellers. Now a Christian, he’s just released The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable, Different World of Gary S. Paxton (New Pax, NP-33005, distributed by Word). Technically the record is well produced, and musically Paxton does some interesting things. I particularly like his echo-chamber imitation of Elvis. The best cuts on the album are “Layed Back” on side one and “There’s Got to Be More to Livin’ Than Just Waitin’ to Die,” both written by Paxton. He balances the album with humorous and serious songs, ballads and rock numbers. Welcome to Jesus music, Gary S. Paxton.


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