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Chaim Soutine (French, 1893–1943)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Russian painter of Belorussian birth. He was brought up in a Lithuanian Jewish ghetto and took an early interest in drawing, encountering opposition in his community for his defiance of the Talmudic interdictions concerning images. At 16 he left for Minsk, and between 1910 and 1913 he studied at a small academy in Vilna (now Vilnius) that accepted Jews, where he learnt about Russian art and its avant-garde movements. He was a brilliant student, expressing himself only in tragic themes. Like his fellow students Pinchus Krémègne and Marcel Kikoïne (1892–1968), he dreamt of going to Paris and was able to make the journey in 1913. He enrolled in Fernand Cormon’s studio in the Académie des Beaux-Arts (1913–15) but quickly realized that his visits to the Louvre, where he discovered Fouquet, Tintoretto, El Greco, Raphael, Goya, Ingres, Courbet and Rembrandt, were for him a more fruitful form of study.

In 1915 Soutine was introduced by Jacques Lipchitz to Amedeo Modigliani, with whom he formed a close friendship and who painted his portrait. While Modigliani too often led Soutine into drinking sessions, he helped him to socialize and also showed a keen admiration for his work, which at that time consisted of portraits and still-lifes of food. Food was an obsessional theme for Soutine, corresponding both to its central role in Jewish ritual and to the shortage of food he had experienced during his childhood and subsequently in Paris and in the Midi, for example Herring and Fork (1915–16; Paris, Katia Granoff priv. col.) and Still-life with Tureen (1914–15; New York, Ralph F. Colin priv. col.). Subjects favoured by him ten years later, such as plucked poultry, alluded to the omnipresence of death in his childhood. Soutine also took inspiration from the painters he admired, for example using the floral compositions of Matisse and Cézanne as a source for still-lifes such as Gladioli (1919; Paris, Mus. Orangerie). Chardin’s The Skate (Paris, Louvre) served as the starting-point for such works as Still-life with Skate (1924; Avignon, Mus. Calvet). An admirer of Goya and Rembrandt, both of whom painted realistic depictions of carcasses, he began the series of Flayed Oxen (e.g. c. 1925; Buffalo, NY, Albright-Knox A.G.) by placing a piece of beef in his studio in the Rue du Mont Saint-Gotthard, much to the annoyance of his neighbours, sprinkling it with fresh blood to prevent the colours from fading.

Portraits occupy an equally important place in Soutine’s oeuvre. Among his sitters were his fellow artists Emile Lejeune (Portrait of a Man, 1921; Paris, Mus. Orangerie) and Oscar Miestchaninoff (1923; Paris, Pompidou), but he also produced works such as Man at Prayer, commissioned by Lejeune (1921; Philadelphia, Mrs Paul Todd Makler priv. col.). He conveyed the personality of each of his models, particularly the female ones, in poses of exaggerated awkwardness or arrogance. He also painted figures in the dress of their trade, through which he projected his own emotional life: pastrycooks, choirboys, boot boys and bell-boys (e.g. Page-boy at Maxim’s, 1927; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.).

In 1923 the American collector Albert Barnes saw one of Soutine’s pastrycooks and began collecting the artist’s work in bulk, helping to establish Soutine’s sudden popularity and bring about a spectacular rise in his prices, which protected him from financial need for the rest of his life. Soutine continued to suffer bad health and anxiety, even though from 1925 he produced portraits that were markedly more attractive and serene: Madeleine Castaing (1928; New York, MOMA), Maria Lani (1929; New York, MOMA) and the Young English Girl (1928–9; Paris, Mus. Orangerie).

It was above all as a landscape painter that Soutine fulfilled himself and was promoted by Barnes. He had been sent to the Midi by his dealer Léopold Zborowski in 1918, and he painted fervent landscapes at Céret that prefigured the violent brushwork used by artists of the Cobra movement and Abstract Expressionism. The dynamic paintings produced at Cagnes took on an air of fairy-tale enchantment pervading the quivering masses of colour. The tree had a special place in his work, first as protector, on the same scale as houses and men, and after 1937 as a majestic and disturbing presence (Windy Days, 1939; Washington, DC, Phillips Col.).

Soutine’s career was abruptly interrupted by illness. After Zborowski’s death in 1932 he was supported by Marcel and Madeleine Castaing, who helped him through a period of unfavourable criticism. After 1937, two women shared his life, the German Gerda Groth, whom he called Mlle Garde, and Max Ernst’s first wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. His health declined rapidly with the news of the German persecutions of Jews, and he died during a surgical operation. The mixture of humour and despair, of passion and mockery in Soutine’s paintings, often inadequately described as Expressionist, contributed to his stature as a modern master.

Colette Giraudon
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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