Rouault's credentials as a Modernist were firmly established by his role among the founders of the Salon d'Automne in 1903. However, his devout upbringing, his early training with medieval stained glass and his committed schooling under Gustave Moreau made him an unpredictable avant-gardist with a vehement, heartfelt style quite unlike any of his contemporaries. It was not until after the First World War, and the arrival of sponsorship from the dealer Ambroise Vollard, that Rouault achieved some measure of commercial success.
Throughout Rouault's choice of subject matter, be it religion, prostitutes or circus performers, there is an overwhelming sense of internal struggle, the notion of a moral battle being fought out on the paint surface before our eyes. Indeed the circus figures came to symbolize the painter's own life. As Rouault said, 'Acrobats and horsewomen, glittering, or tired clowns, tight-rope walkers or freaks, my friends, colour and harmony, since my earliest childhood I have been in love with you' (quoted in B. Dorival & I. Rouault, op. cit., p. 153).
Circus performers and the characters of the commedia dell'arte remained Rouault's most frequent subjects throughout his career. The character of Pierrot is that of the sad self-effacing clown, pining for love, a fool yet nonetheless trusting and always oblivious to reality. In this persona, the artist found a touchstone for the human condition and a mirror that reflected the vast parade of life. In the present work, Clown à la marionnette, the figures face one another in pensive introspection, a silent dialogue between performer and puppet, presenting the poignant sadness of these off-stage characters. Rouault here evokes a strong notion of an intimate self-portrait: 'I have seen clearly that the "clown" was I, was us, almost all of us... We are all clowns to a greater or lesser extent... Who would then dare say that he has not been overwhelmed, down to the pit of his stomach, by an immense pity?' (quoted in F. Hergott, Rouault, Barcelona, 1992, p. 15).
To Rouault, clowns represented a naiveté that he longed for in his own life, offering a release from his focus on prostitutes and darker perspectives on life. As Lionello Venturi observed, 'When [Rouault] paints clowns... the grotesque becomes amiable, even lovable... colours grow rich and resplendent, almost as if the artist were laying aside his crusaders arms for a moment, were relaxing in the light of the sun and letting it flood into his work' (Rouault, Lausanne, 1959, pp. 21 & 51).