Smilavichy, Russian Empire
Summary of Chaim Soutine
Chaim Soutine is an Expressionist artist that lived and worked in Paris at the height of the modern era. Despite dominant trends toward abstraction, Soutine maintained a firm connection to recognizable subject matter. His innovation was in the way he chose to represent his subjects: with a thick impasto of paint covering the surface of the canvas, the palette, visible brushwork, and forms translated the artist's inner torment. As an expatriate Russian Jew living within Paris, with few friends beyond fellow artist Amedeo Modigliani, Soutine interpreted common themes with the eye of an outsider, further enhancing his unique perspective regarding his human subjects, landscapes, and still lifes and lending them a particular vanitas and poignancy. A prototypical wild artist, Soutine's temper and depression are both well documented and were poured into the paint he layered on the canvas. Soutine's body of work transcends the movements that dominated the avant-garde during his lifetime, expressing a clear personal and artistic vision that both looks back at historic themes as well as toward future modernist styles.
- Soutine looked to established masters like Rembrandt van Rijn and Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin for inspiration, often referencing subject matter from their paintings in his own work. However, although many of his paintings contain clear references to historic works, Soutine reinterpreted each theme, imbuing it with a drama and tension derived from his own complex emotions not present in the older work.
- A preoccupation with food dominates Soutine's vivid still lifes, with the focus placed on the bodies of animals used for food. The artist's complex relationship to food, with its prominent place in Jewish ritual as well as its scarcity in his youth and early career, lends the common vanitas theme a deeper, more personal meaning.
- Although labeled within art history as an Expressionist, Soutine's subjects and paintings are far from the typical urban angst commonly portrayed by German Expressionists. Instead, his unique mode of conveying his inner psyche through the manipulation of paint set a precedent that would reappear with the Abstract Expressionists.
- Soutine's early experience of religious persecution had a large influence throughout his life, on both his personality and his art. His personal experience of discrimination provided the fuel for his expressive rendering of common objects and themes. He filtered his angst into his brushstrokes and, practicing painting as an act of devotion, he provided many later Jewish artists with an early-20th-century role model.
Progression of Art
Still Life with Herrings
There is unmistakable symbolism in many, if not all, of Soutine's still-life paintings of food. Not only does food play an important role in religious ritual, but Soutine also endured great poverty while growing up and constant stomach ulcers that often made eating impossible. In this painting, an early study made not long after completing his studies in Paris, he cleverly conveys a sense of hunger by likening the forks to arms, which reach in from opposite ends of the plate to grab the slender fish. Comparatively this work is amateurish when viewed with his later portraits and still lifes, yet it also shows a young artist with a keen sense of symbolism and an Impressionistic painterly touch.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Soutine was said not to be a terribly handsome man, but was by no means was he grotesque. So it is incredibly telling that Soutine infused his self-portraits with a clear sense of self-loathing by exaggerating his features to the point of distortion such that the image of the artist in the painting is unrecognizable as the man that appears in photographs from the same time. Soutine even subtitled a later self-portrait Grotesque (1922-23). This example from 1918 contorts the nose, lips, and ears, and altogether portrays him in an unfavorable light, as if the artist were exploring his darkest character flaws writ large on his visage. Adding to his jagged shoulders and anguished eyes, Soutine tellingly chooses an acidic yellow for the backdrop of this portrait, which only furthers the melancholy of his perspective. The clear influence of Post-Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh can be seen in the vibrant palette as well as the loose brushwork Soutine used to create this image.
Oil on canvas - The Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Not long after Soutine became acquainted with the dealer Leopold Zborowski, he was sent to the village of Céret in the Pyrenees foothills, the very place where Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris vacationed and discovered much of their inspiration for Cubism. Although quite taken with Cubism and its intellectual pursuits, Soutine refrained from experimenting with the style in his own art. Instead he preferred to lend his canvas a certain vibrancy, with multiple sweeps and curves that gave his landscapes an unsettling beauty. Despite the artist's abundance of landscape work throughout his career, Soutine did not have a terribly affectionate relationship with the outdoors. In turn, he rendered his landscapes with his own brand of anxiety and moroseness, indicated by scenery that seems to shift across the canvas. Soutine's position in France as an outsider is emphasized by the perspective, which is rendered as if he were hovering above the scene as the earth fell away beneath him. Clearly he did not represent nature as it objectively appeared, but how he, the Russian-Jewish immigrant plagued by sadness, viewed it - a typically modern and Expressionist mode of representation. The swirling brushwork of the trees and jagged, tilting horizon convey the internal unrest felt by Soutine and foreshadow the gestural quality of the action paintings of the Abstract Expressionists.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Pastry Cook with Red Handkerchief
Soutine was on occasion referred to as a "servant painter" due to his many portraits of cooks, maids, and other wait staff - even random people he encountered on the street. Pastry Cook with Red Handkerchief (aka The Little Pastry Cook) is perhaps the best known of Soutine's pastry cook paintings which caught the attention of Albert Barnes in 1923. Widely regarded as a masterpiece of color, the handkerchief is the focal point of the work. Despite being partially hidden in the young man's grasp, the splash of red in the handkerchief draws the viewer's eye throughout the composition. The angular, exaggerated features of the young man and his absent gaze echo those found in some of Soutine's self-portraits, suggesting that Soutine saw himself in this young man. The flatness of the representation and the thick impasto of the paint application would later reappear in works by the Art Brut painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet, further demonstrating Soutine's impact on modern art, despite his non-involvement in a specific avant-garde group.
Oil on canvas - Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris
Carcass of Beef
Here, Soutine cunningly portrayed the beef split open, as if bearing its soul to the viewer. Soutine's repeated use of animal carcasses as the subject matter for still life paintings likely stems from his complex relationship with food and his adoration of the work of Rembrandt. During his repeated visits to the Louvre, Soutine pondered the old master's Slaughtered Ox, which bears a strong resemblance to Carcas of Beef(1655). Unlike Rembrandt, Soutine isolated the subject and employed an unusual method in the creation of this still life. After hanging the side of beef bought at a Parisian slaughterhouse in his studio, he had his assistant fetch a bucket of fresh cow's blood every few days and, while painting this work, Soutine would repeatedly pour blood over the carcass to ensure it maintained the bright color of freshly cut beef. Meanwhile, his assistant fanned away flies and neighbors complained to the police about the smell, even causing health inspectors to almost cart the beef away. Luckily his assistant intervened, as Soutine was far too engrossed in painting, and the artist was allowed to finish what is largely regarded as his masterpiece. The very visceral image of Soutine pouring blood over the carcass, as well as rapidly applying layer after layer of liquid paint to the canvas, recalls the later action painting of the mid-20th century. A direct link to this painting can be found in the work of Francis Bacon, which reflects the dark, emotional turmoil of Soutine as well as the use of anthropomorphized beef to reveal the artist's psyche.
Oil on canvas - The Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Woman Entering the Water
This portrait is another example in which Soutine reinterpreted Rembrandt - specifically the old master's Hendrickje Bathing from 1655. In Soutine's version, he confronts his figure head-on, with little distinction between the woman and the water itself. Her dress, skin, and posture are all somewhat contorted - static while not entirely motionless - much like the water she is entering. Soutine's rapid brushwork drastically flattens the figure and her surroundings, eliminating naturalistic depth in favor of a condensed, ambiguous space filled with dramatic tension. This radical rendering is a dramatically modern interpretation of a naturalistic scene captured by Rembrandt. In portraits like this, Soutine successfully synthesized traditional influences from subject matter and the exaggerated shadows of the Dutch Baroque master with his own particular vision; here, he represents the figure with quick, visible brush strokes and an eye for abstraction that obscures the woman's body in favor of the texture and complexity of brushwork used to render her garment. Soutine pushes the subject up to the front of the image, removing most reference to the background and placing the focus on his handling of the paint, a clear precedent for the path of the later Abstract Expressionists. While Rembrandt painted a candid portrait of his wife, a testament to their intimate relationship, Soutine worked from a paid model or a peasant woman he encountered in his daily routine. This difference is evident in the painting's impersonal tone as well as the homeliness and earthiness with which he imbues his female subject.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Biography of Chaim Soutine
Chaim Soutine was born and raised in the small Jewish settlement of Smilavichy, near Minsk, in what is present-day Belarus. The tenth of 11 children, his father was a tailor and Soutine was raised under extremely modest means. His upbringing was fairly typical of Russian-born Jews during this era, who were forced to endure persecution and discrimination from a hostile government. Soutine's interest in drawing incurred opposition within his Orthodox family and the small community because of Talmudic proscriptions regarding images. According to an oft-recounted story, young Soutine was beaten in punishment after presenting a portrait to a rabbi. The suffering he experienced within the Jewish ghetto of his youth is believed to have worked its way into his later canvases.
At age 16, Soutine traveled to Minsk and, from 1910 to 1913, studied at the Vilna Academy of Fine Arts (in what is now the town of Vilnius), one of the few academies of its kind that accepted Jews. While enrolled, Soutine was exposed to artists from the Russian avant-garde as well as older Russian masters like renowned seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky and landscape artist Fyodor Alekseev. Soutine excelled at drawing and painting during his early tutelage, yet instructors noted the young artist's penchant for tragedy and visually dark subject matter.
Following his training at Vilna, at age 19, Soutine traveled to Paris with fellow students Pinchus Kremegne and Marcel Kikoine and enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts, working for two years in the studio of Fernand Cormon, a highly respected historical painter. He also began making frequent visits to the Louvre and conducted close studies of works by the likes of Francisco Goya, El Greco, Jacopo Tintoretto, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Gustave Courbet. The paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn, however, made a distinct impact on the young Soutine, who came to adore the master's portraiture, still lifes, and dramatic use of light. Later in life, Soutine reportedly made several trips by train to Amsterdam and slept on a park bench outside of the Rijksmuseum, just for the chance to spend more time with the museum's Rembrandt collection.
In 1915, while living in La Ruche - literally "The Beehive" - a rather shabby artist's residence in the southwestern outskirts of Paris, friend and fellow artist Jacques Lipchitz introduced Soutine to Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian-Jewish emigre, who had a great influence on Soutine's career. Soutine was quite shy, both with women and in general, and had an intense and temperamental manner that further complicated socializing and establishing a career. His newfound friendship with Modigliani, however, helped assuage these difficulties, as Soutine stated, "He gave me confidence in myself." A great admirer of Soutine's early portraits and still lifes of food, Modigliani soon introduced Soutine to his art dealer, Leopold Zborowski, who almost immediately offered to represent Soutine. Modigliani and Soutine's friendship was also commemorated by a series of portraits the artists made of one another in 1917.
Soutine chose to eschew the dominant early-20th-century avant-garde trends of Cubism, Dada, and Futurism in favor of a more traditional approach, honing his skills as a portraitist and painter of still lifes. Food in particular was a constant obsession in his work, which likely stemmed from its central role in Jewish ritual. Early examples of this interest include Still Life with Tureen (1914-15) and Still Life with Herrings (1916), while a decade later more grisly examples followed like Flayed Rabbit (1924) and his series of beef carcasses. In his repeated use of beef, poultry, fish, and other animal carcasses as subject matter over the course of several decades, one can surmise that Soutine also held an obsessive interest in death.
As World War I drew to a close, Soutine returned to Paris with the financial support of Zborowski, following three years of living in the provinces. He began to create a great number of portraits of local townspeople and service laborers like cooks, maids, and boot polishers, most of whom he met randomly. While in Ceret in the French Pyrenees and in Cagnes during the early 1920s, Soutine devoted himself to the creation of dramatically expressionist landscapes and natural scenes of the French peasantry, infusing the typically Impressionist and Post-Impressionist subject matter with his darkly pseudo-abstract approach that reflected his continued angst and sorrow regardless of his surroudings.
The 1920s were Soutine's most productive years and, consequently, the most lucrative time of his career. In 1923, while Soutine's works were exhibited at the gallery of art dealer Paul Guillame, American collector Albert C. Barnes was quite taken with one of Soutine's portraits of a pastry cook. Guillame privately showed him more of Soutine's work, the bulk of which the collector promptly purchased. Dr. Barnes' patronage raised the price for all of Soutine's work and allowed him to live in financial stability for the rest of his career. His first dealer and patron, Zborowski, died in 1932, but Soutine received generous support from the wealthy French collectors Madeleine and Marcellin Castaing, who welcomed Soutine to stay at their summer home in Leves from 1930 to '35. During the 1930s, Soutine participated in a number of well-received exhibitions, including a solo show in Chicago and group exhibition entitled The Origins and Development of International Independent Art in Paris.
Late Period and Death
On the eve of World War II, Soutine had been living with his companion and nurse-maid Gerda, a Jewish-German woman who fled to Paris in 1935. Gerda was forcibly removed to a camp for German nationals in 1940, as the Nazis neared France. At the loss of their stable relationship, Soutine was distraught. However, later that year Soutine became romantically involved with Max Ernst's former wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, who remained his muse and mistress until his death. With the Nazi invasion of Paris in the summer of 1940, Soutine was eventually forced to flee his apartment in Paris for fear of being captured by the Gestapo. The years that followed were Soutine's darkest, as he was forced from a safe house in Paris to villages in the Loire valley, moving from place to place with forged passports. The stress of living like a hunted man aggravated Soutine's ulcers. He was rushed to a hospital in Chinon due to anemia and pain, but his condition required an emergency surgery in Paris. The travel and operation took over 24 hours, and Soutine died of a perforated ulcer on August 9, 1943, at 50 years old.
The Legacy of Chaim Soutine
Despite being the lone Expressionist in Paris amidst the Cubists and Dadaists, Soutine secured a stable career for himself and paved the way for later avant-gardes. His work represents an important precursor to Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism, especially his animal carcass paintings, which he painted with great rapidity, and his landscapes, which reflect the all-over compositions and gestural brushwork adopted by later artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Recent exhibitions have demonstrated the direct influence Soutine's meat still lifes had on Francis Bacon, evidenced by the presence of sides of beef in several works by the British artist. Similarly, the thick impasto of Soutine's canvases and his dramatically simplified rendering of human subjects show a clear link to the Art Brut work of Jean Dubuffet.