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The Old King

Georges Rouault (French, 1871–1958)


Medium oil on canvas Measurements H: 30 1/4 x W: 21 1/4 in. (76.83 x 53.98 cm) Credit Patrons Art Fund Accession Number 40.1 Location Gallery 11, Scaife Galleries


The Old King follows the form of Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs and Greek and Roman coins by showing a ruler in profile. The painting's glowing colors and thick black outlines, derived from stained glass window designs, evoke the powers and mystery of ancient kingship without referring to any specific historical figure. However, this ruler, unlike those in more traditional representations, holds sprigs of white flowers instead of the scepter or sword of earthly power. The white flowers—by embodying the fragility of life, the inevitability of death, and the inexorable cycles of birth and decay—confront the king with the limits of his power. Thus, a symbol that speaks of spring, innocence, and renewal gives a dark and bitter twist to the meaning of the traditional royal icon. The Old King is perhaps the best known of Rouault's many half-length figure paintings, which also include, notably, representations of Christ and of circus characters. All are imbued with the sense of tragic contradiction so powerfully suggested in The Old King. Rouault's style is characterized by morbid pessimism in conjunction with sumptuous coloring and thickly encrusted brushwork that evolved through his study of stained glass techniques and his tutelage under the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. Moreau's death in 1898 deeply saddened Rouault, and his interest in the Catholic socialist writer Léon Bloy and the decadent literature of J.K. Huysmans strongly affected his religious beliefs. After 1902, when he was stricken with a serious illness, his paintings began to reflect an intense concern for human suffering and the deterioration of society. It is also significant that he began The Old King during World War I, which devastated the traditional monarchies of Europe, and that he completed it during the turbulent years before World War II, which brought further horrors. Carnegie Institute purchased The Old King in 1940, at the beginning of World War II, when Rouault's tragic vision must have seemed strongly evocative of twentieth-century darkness.