Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse were both asked on separate occasions whether, if they were stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue or of ever being discovered, would they continue to paint?
Henri Matisse, La Musique (1939);
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Matisse answered no.
Rouault answered yes.
- Georges Rouault, Wikipedia
- Dyrness, William. Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1971).
- Georges Rouault exhibit, Bowden Collection, by William Dyrness.
- Henri Matisse, Wikipedia
—– Update, Sept 16 —–
Dyrness’ magnificent study of Rouault’s work has been one of my favorite books since I came upon it as an undergraduate in a course on the history of 20th century painting, and I have kept a framed print of “The Old King” in my home or office for at least 30 years. Personal reflection on his art has made Rouault seem like a life long friend and companion.
I’m traveling now and away from my books, but I seem to remember that Rouault continued by saying, “no, for I would have need of that mode of expression” – or something similar (words which perhaps display some degree of affinity with Expressionism). In theological terms, this would be a sense of calling. In the context of schooling, it’s the same point I was making by quoting Yeats here about the aim of education being to light a fire. In regard to life goals, it’s like another of Yates’ poems “To a friend whose work has come to nothing,” which advises,
“Be secret and exult, for of all things that is most difficult.”
Why keep painting? For the same reason one would ever begin painting in the first place. Why keep on doing anything?
I have often thought of Rouault’s answer as a helpful way to reflect on one’s academic aims, one’s calling, or one’s life goals. If we would not keep on doing it were no one to ever pay attention, maybe it’s not the thing we should be doing anyway. Let’s “live like we’re dying.” There must be an inner fire, a drive that does not derive from external recognition, a passion arising from the heart of who we are.
I was prompted to make this post because I quoted this anecdote to a friend earlier this week in a conversation over coffee, in hope that it might encourage her in her resolve to write more consistently. Rouault’s answer is applicable to any calling, whether I am wondering why I should paint, why I should write, why I should go or not go to college, why I should get up in the morning or do anything at all. I also linked to this post from my About page, regarding why I started this blog.
It’s roughly the same point made by C.S. Lewis in “Learning in Wartime,” where he explained to young scholars during WW2 why they should continue with their studies.
Bottom line: If you find yourself in a position where you are wondering why you should do something, or keep on doing it, perhaps the contrast between Matisse and Rouault may help you decide.