Rouault's work is dedicated to expressing an intense and saving faith in a caring Christian God. His religious belief informs all his art. He wanted to reach, to help, through his art, 'the poor in spirit'. He was a 'silent friend of those who labour in the barren field'.
This print was completed when the artist was 65, and it forms part of a set of prints which show that Rouault must be regarded as one of the great religious artists of the age.
'The Shepherds' comes from 'The Passion of Christ', a series of plates commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, a renowned Paris art dealer and publisher. It was published in 1939 after many years of collaboration between publisher, artist and the writer of the accompanying text, Andre Suares. The prints and text form a compassionate and sincere portrayal of Christ's love for all humanity.
In this print, the shepherds are real; they are naive, even crude witnesses to the miracle. Rouault has not sanctified them; they wear the traditional peasant dress of the French countryside. Their postures are awkward, their bodies are workers' bodies - strong and tough. Yet there is tenderness as well. These shepherds are witnessing something which is completely strange to any previous experience, and it has changed them completely. Rouault's feeling for his subject and his over-arching faith combine here with his mastery of techniques to produce a powerful image which evokes some sense of the wonder felt by the shepherds at Christ's birth.
The viewer is reminded strongly of medieval stained glass in the colours used and in the heavy black lines which enclose areas of pure colour. Rouault was, in fact, apprenticed at the age of 14 to a glass painter who restored medieval church windows.
He attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts from 1890, becoming Gustav Moreau's favourite pupil. After Moreau's death in 1898, he became the curator of the Musee Gustave Moreau.
As his career progressed, he used brighter colours to create greater impact and more powerful images. Rouault's mature style is distinctive, with slashes of colour and massive caricatural forms set against ominous shadows.
Rouault never fully divulged the method of making these prints. From his original gouache painting, the design was transferred photographically onto printing plates. These plates were then further worked extensively by Rouault using aquatint and etching techniques. The printing was completed using up to seven. different colour plates. This built up the layers of colour, adding richness and depth to the tones. Some prints in the 1936 series show signs of hand-colouring, added by Rouault after the complicated printing process was finished.
There are 17 prints in the cycle, 'The Passion of Christ', and these were printed in editions of 245.