I’d like to compare plate 38 and 39 of the Miserere series:
In each of these images Rouault’s skill at reflecting the viewer in the subject is seen. The Chinese man in plate 38 is not so ethnically specific as to be alienating. The foolish act of gifting gunpowder – an evil (gunpowder) paradoxically combined with a good (gift) – is not something to be solely placed on the Chinese. After all, we aren’t presented with facts – we only know that “they say” that they invented it. This doubles the foolishness of the figure – he is laying claim to such a horrid gift. The Scripture that Rouault couples with this plate suggests that this boast of invention is the real folly: “Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.” – Proverbs 10:14
The theme of foolishness vs. wisdom continues into plate 39. We see the sort of men who may receive such a gift. At first the caption seems explanatory, “We are insane” say the figures. “Good, that must mean that I am quite sane” responds the viewer. One of the insane men even kindly points to the pair, as if to clarify who exactly is insane. However, the Scripture Rouault couples with the print clarifies: “This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” – Ecclesiastes 9:3
The “we” of the caption is the “we” of all mankind. Mankind is evil (“Man is wolf to man” in plate 37 – all men are wolves to all men) to himself, and this evil is a madness that is manifest in the invention of gunpowder, the gifting of it, the bragging of it. While the Chinese man of plate 38 certainly looks the part (he seems to glare at us, unwelcoming in his laboratory), the pair in plate 39 look almost respectable, though a perhaps a bit comical. It is this range of madness that includes the viewer in the insane.