Painted between 1931 and 1939, Pierrot
is a superb example of one of Georges Rouault's most expressive and beloved series. Inspired by Ambroise Vollard, who had commissioned him to make etchings and woodcuts for the book Cirque de l'étoile filante
(published in 1938), Rouault’s interest in the world of the circus found its greatest outlet in his art during the 1930s. Rouault was particularly drawn to the clown Pierrot and his expressive potential as a subject for portraiture. A pensive and melancholy stock character from the Commedia dell'Arte
who pines for the love of Columbine, in the 19th century the character of Pierrot was lifted out of this circumscribed world
and into the larger realm of myth. Popularized in depictions by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and Jacques Lipchitz, as well as Rouault, the figure of
Pierrot became an alter-ego for the artist; an alienated, avant-garde philosopher fraught with existential anguish and scarred by amorous disappointments.
For Rouault, these nomadic clowns represented innocence, soulful sensitivity and naiveté, and were a release from his focus on the darker images of life. His series of Pierrot
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, 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).
In the present work, Rouault combats the potential frivolity of the clown as a subject with a Cloisonnist style in which both the figure and the stage set with red curtains behind him are built up using thick sweeping strokes of impasto in jewel-like colors and delineated with bold black outlines. Evoking the imagery and feel of traditional stained glass, Rouault's Pierrot
is thus imbued with a spiritual depth. Rouault employs boundless expressionist brushstrokes that add his quintessential texture and deconstruct forms to the very edge of abstraction.
The previous owner of this work was philanthropist and heir of the May Department Stores Company, Morton D. May, whose collection included masterpieces by German and French Expressionists. May served as a commissioner at the Saint Louis Art Museum for eight years, and upon his death bequeathed his collection to the museum.
According to a letter from Isabelle Rouault to a curator of the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1987, the signature on the present work was likely an addition by Ambroise Vollard when it was in his collection.