Georges Rouault was born on May 27, 1871 in Paris in a cellar to which his mother had been carried after the house had been struck by a stray shell during an insurrection. His father was a cabinet-maker in a piano factory. His paternal grandfather was a lover of art, an admirer of Manet and Daumier, who hoped the child would become a painter. When Rouault was a teenager he was apprenticed to a stained glass maker. This early contact with stained glass influenced immensely his later career as painter and printmaker. At the same time he attended evening classes at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, and studied painting at the Louvre. He entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts under Elie Delaunay, who died soon after. He became the favorite pupil and a close friend of Gustave Moreau.
Moreau died in 1898 and the same year Rouault's parents left France to be with their daughter in Algeria whose husband had just died. Rouault was named Director of the new Musee Gustave Moreau. He turned to painting landscapes; he had a period of bad health which he spent in Evian. Rouault always saw himself as an artisan, an anonymous laborer making devotional images. He used black outline to reinforce the brilliancy of color and expressive gesture in the manner of mosaics or medieval miniatures. He drew freely from various sources in order to give conventual overtones to his modern statement of human dilemma. His preoccupation over the years with the plight of prostitutes, tragicomic clowns and biblical martyrs, who as outcasts from society, suffer the burden of insoluble ethical demands, reflects the existential dread of despair he, as an artist, suffered himself.
In 1908, Rouault married Martha Le Sidoner. They had four children. Rouault exhibited with the Fauves, though he was never closely associated with that movement. His work from then until the end of his life was concerned with printmaking, designing costumes and scenery, illustrating books, etc.