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 not a terribly handsome figure, but was by no means a grotesque man. 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