Rouault was born under a bombardment of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. (In 1871; died 1958.) In the district of Belleville, before it was an arrondissement, he first saw the light of this world. A shell hit the side of the house, sending his mother into labour. The extended family within retreated to the cellar. Grandfather was separated from the rest, as bombs landed in the street like hail; but during a lull he found his way back to what was left of home.

“Is everyone dead down there?” he called, into the hole.

“No, in fact we are one more,” replied the grandmother.

The story appeals to me on multiple levels. At the top, what a fine setting for dry humour. One knows immediately that these two oldies had a happy marriage. That they were ready for anything, all along. Birth, death, war, carnage: you take it as it comes. Through all, you stay Catholic.

This maternal grandfather (Alexandre Champdavoine) was not rich. He had foresight, nevertheless, having blest the new grandchild with many wonderful aunts. He was an art collector, owning in total two plaster busts: one of Racine and one of Corneille. Too, he collected cheap art reproductions, being addicted to Manet and Courbet. He could not afford books, but would borrow and copy them out. Among Rouault’s prize possessions, in later life, was his grandfather’s Orlando Furioso, patiently transcribed: every page of a French translation.

For years I did not like Georges Rouault’s paintings. They struck me as crude and “simplismic.” Perhaps if he had taken up stained glass, I thought, the style would be more appropriate. (I did not know Rouault had worked as a stained-glass restorer.) It needed backlighting. I had seen several of his oils, hanging in museums. The impasto was impressive. It seemed, from close, that one was looking over the relief model of a battlefield. Could he do anything more delicate in pencil?

This was when I was quite young and, arguably, even stupider than I am today. Eventually, however, the penny dropt, and I began to understand what Rouault was about. Then he became one of my major heroes: an artist of commanding grace.

But of course he could draw, delicately, and I have since seen the sensitive sketches of his youth and early manhood. He painted the way he did on purpose, when he came into his powers. He painted in the confident lines of the artists in the caves of Lascaux. Neither he, nor his talent, were narrow. He painted, set aside, returned to his paintings. There was nothing unintentional in them. He had what we call “a vision,” and would not compromise.

He belonged to that generation who came to full maturity “between the Wars” — the fathers of twentieth-century “modern art,” building upon Cézanne and Degas; or rebuilding. Each was a traditionalist of a certain kind, more aware and more devoted to “art history” than painters of any previous generation. A surprising number were intensely Catholic, and among those not, a surprising number were some other sort of religious nutjobs. I think I wrote about this somewhere: that one cannot begin to understand the greatest art of the twentieth century — extending into the 1950s and sometimes beyond — without beginning to understand the artists’ intentions. They were publicized as revolutionaries, but in almost every case, the artist was instead a thundering reactionary, whose actual views on almost any topic would curl your ears.

Rouault, among the least intellectual, had perhaps the clearest idea what he was doing. He drilled shafts to older artists long dead (including Rembrandt, whose prints, I think, provide a skeleton key to Rouault’s tactics), without the props of “analysis”; he dealt in mysterious continuities. I would characterize his whole production as an attempt (remarkably successful) to perdure in Christian art, for all that had been lost through meretricious generations. He is romanesque, gothic, baroque — and something else that carries beyond them. It is as if Christian civilization had never been diminished. For where others sought to recreate or reinvent — to make a new start, to find a new path — Rouault took only the old road home.

He loathed, even more than I loathe, sentimental clutter — the kitsch that is still merchandized to the guileless faithful in Catholic trinket stores — not because it is “in poor taste,” but because it dulls and degrades their faith; drains the blood; makes us anaemic. There is nothing cheaply “romantic,” nor “pretty,” nor prissy, nor prudish, in Rouault’s depictions of Paris street life. He paints souls, through faces; he can show us the squalour of a prostitute, and through it to her immortal, God-created worth. His pictures belong in churches, not museums. I imagine them sometimes as altarpieces. I transfer them, by recollection, into an apse that looks empty or weak. The real presence has infused them.

He is such a gift, to the meek of a Church that has been losing her way; to those led, as today, by cowardly or false shepherds. How natural that he should be delivered into the world by a cannon.