After an apprenticeship with a stained-glass artist, Georges Rouault studied painting under the Symbolist Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts with Henri Matisse and others. Rouault believed “my real life is back in the age of the cathedrals,” a concept reinforced by the interpretation of his subjects. With great emotional intensity, Rouault depicted prostitutes, clowns, and religious figures as dense, colorful forms surrounded by distinct black outlines, a reference to his stained-glass training.
As a young man, Rouault revered the poetry of Paul Verlaine, whose brilliant career was marked by scandal after he met author Arthur Rimbaud in 1871. Their tumultuous relationship broke apart Verlaine’s marriage and sent him to jail, where he created some of his most powerful work. In prison, Verlaine underwent a highly emotional and religious conversion. Rouault pictures Verlaine sitting with a devotional image of the Virgin and Child at his side. Verlaine was one of many canvases that Rouault reworked for years. Phillips acquired it through a trade for paintings in the collection by Rouault, Chagall, and Matisse.