When Rouault first exhibited these early paintings in the Salon d'Automne, they were greeted with jeers and scathing criticism. Such tough uncompromising paintings as Femme au Chapeau blanc were too sombre and dark for an audience more familiar with the vibrant colours of Matisse's fauve Femme au Chapeau which was exhibited at the Salon d'Automne of 1905.
Between 1902 and 1909 Rouault had executed a fine series of gouaches and watercolours of prostitutes and nude girls. Invited to sit for him from the street below his studio, they were largely painted using the limited colour range of deep blues, brick reds and black. Towards the end of this period he painted a small group of bourgeois and working class women wearing broad-brimmed hats and bonnets. The palette darkens even further as the rich blues of the earlier watercolours begin to disappear: brick red, black and white dominate. Rouault also begins to experiment with his media. Whilst he continues to favour small format watercolours and gouaches, a few détrempes and oils exist: Femme au Chapea blanc is a fine example of the rare, large-scale oils of the period.
Rouault's earlier prostitute paintings had focussed largely on the strange beauty of the course features and grotesque bodies of the young girls rather than on their characters. Femme au Chapeau blanc heralds a change in direction: in the style of a renaissance portrait, the sitter sits in profile looking out at her audience. Monumental, dignified and strong of character she is clearly so different from the faceless young prostitutes that Rouault must have known her well.
The monumentality of the portrait owes much to Rouault's handling of paint. Even at this relatively early stage in his career he was extremely conscious of the painterly potential of oil. It is no coincidence that Rouault had recently been introduced to Cézanne's work; the colours and texture of his early palette knife paintings had a significant influence on him. In an article of 1943 Rouault wrote, "Je me souviens d'une composition de Cézanne vue chez Ambroise Vollard, rue Martignac, qui avait été facérée à coups de couteau à palette" (Le Point XXVI-XXVII, Aug.-Oct. 1943, p. 28). Here Rouault combines palette knife with brush, and dry paint with glazes to give the portrait a weight and monumentality that one rarely sees in paintings of this period. In his introduction to the recent Rouault exhibition catalogue Fabrice Hergott discusses the unconventional light effects achieved by these experiments with paint: "Ces années sont celles d'une progression vers la lumière. Il paraît chercher un equilibre entre la transparence et l'opacité, hésitant quelque temps entre des peintures très sombres et les blancs, quitte a surprendre ses contemporains" (Exh. cat. Rouault, Première Periode, 1903-1920, Paris, 1992, no. 57)
Discussing Rouault's near obsessive concentration on figurative painting in these early years he adds, "Un portrait est chez lui comme un paysage. Pour Rouault, la lumière d'un visage n'est pas moins intense que celle d'un paysage de Bretagne ou de Noël". (op. cit. p. 57)