Georges Rouault's Clown au maillot rouge stares out from the canvas, a direct and bracing gaze. Painted in 1931-39, during the period when Rouault's work was gaining increasing acclaim both in France and internationally, this picture shows one of the artist's most celebrated themes, the clown. He invests Clown au maillot rouge with the signature sense of pathos that he brought to the subject. This picture is intensely evocative of the life and humanity of the man behind the make-up. Where the circus and its performers had been a popular subject for artists as diverse as Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Marc Chagall, many of them explored it because of its colour, movement and entertainment. For Rouault, though, it is the life underneath that is vital. In telling terms, he himself described a circus caravan:
'This nomad caravan, parked by the roadside, the old horse grazing on the meagre grass, the old clown sitting in a corner of his caravan in the process of mending his sparkling and gaudy costume, this contrast of brilliant, scintillating objects, made to amuse, and a life of infinite sadness... I saw quite clearly that the "Clown" was me, was us, nearly all of us... This rich and glittering costume, it is given to us by life itself, we are all more or less clowns, we all wear a glittering costume, but if we are surprised as I surprised the old clown, oh lord! who would dare to say that he was not struck, even to the heart, by an immeasurable pity' (Rouault, quoted in B. Dorival & I. Rouault, Rouault: L'oeuvre peint, Monte Carlo, 1988, p. 40).
Rouault used the clown as a subject that could invoke similar feelings in the viewer to those prompted by religious paintings. That link to religious art is emphasised by his distinctive style of painting: he has used outlines that recall his training as a stained glass artist in the early part of his career; these push the colours, and in particular the skin tones and the red of the clown's top, to the fore, adding a warmth to this expressionistic vision. At the same time, the surface has been heavily worked - it is a terrain in its own right, an agglomeration of material that adds a weight and substantiality to its subject. Looking at this painting, it is clear why Paul Fierens would write of Rouault that he, 'paints man as a mixture of spirit and clay, of heart and guts' (Paul Fierens, quoted in P. Courthion, Georges Rouault, London, 1962, p. 255).