Richly textured and saturated with color, Rouault's bust of a harlequin belongs to the artist's most expressive and beloved series. The figure of the harlequin originated from 16th century Italian Commedia dell'arte
, which portrayed the stock-character clown Arlecchino as the foil of a romantic drama. While this character was famous as an alter-ego for Picasso during the first-half of the twentieth century, Rouault claimed the character for himself in later years, painting images of the figure that are now universally equated with his art.
His interest in the world of the circus found its greatest outlet in his art during the 1930s, when Ambroise Vollard had commissioned him to make etchings and woodcuts for the book Cirque de l'étoile filante
, published in 1938. These depictions were based on his own childhood memories of the circus, as he remembered them, "Acrobats and horsewomen, sparkling or passive clowns, tightrope walkers and freaks, and my friends, color and harmony, since my earliest childhood I have been in love with you" (quoted in Bernard Dorival & Isabelle Rouault, Rouault, l'oeuvre peint
, Monte Carlo, 1988, vol I, p. 153). Rouault combats the potential frivolity of the subject with a Cloisonnist style in which the figures and objects are delineated with black outlines. Evoking the imagery of stained glass imbues the subject with a more profound and spiritual depth. Unlike other artists who employed Cloisonnist techniques, however, Rouault employs boundless expressionistic brushstrokes that deconstruct forms and bring his subject to the edge of abstraction.
Rouault was particularly drawn to harlequins and their expressive potential as subjects for portraiture. These nomadic entertainers represented freedom and naïveté, and were for Rouault a release from his focus on the darker images of life. His series of clown portraits is marked by an emotional immediacy that is unique both within his oeuvre and the spectrum of modern art. Lionello Venturi writes, "When he paints clowns, however, the grotesque becomes amiable, even lovable... colors grow rich and resplendent, almost as if the artist, laying aside his crusader's arms for a moment, were relaxing in the light of the sun and letting it flood into his work" (Lionello Venturi, Rouault
, Lausanne, 1959, pp. 21 & 51).
Gregory Peck purchased the present work when he was 81 years old. "I have been looking at his work for years," wrote Peck in a letter to a friend. "Now, at my age, I see a spirituality and power that I never fully appreciated. Live and learn."