25 December 2008

Chaim Soutine, sad expressionist

I have come back to Chaim Soutine 1893–1943 because of two unexpected blog entries. Susan's Museum Experience analysed Little Girl with a Doll 1919. Life at Willow Manor discussed a Soutine painting called Melanie the School Teacher 1922. These lovely works, new to me, are in the Hillman Foundation NY and the Columbus Museum of Art.

Who was Soutine? Wh­ile still a young teenager from an impov­er­ished Russian village near Minsk, he attended the Acad­emy of Fine Arts of Vilna where he met another of my favourite young art students, Michel Kikoine. In order to survive financially, Soutine work­ed at odd jobs, until a doctor discovered his talent and paid for his train ticket to Paris.

What prompted Soutine and the other 100 foreign painters, largely from Eastern Europe, to travel all the way to Paris? They had no mon­ey, no French and no family support. Their arrival in Paris coin­cided with an extraord­inary artistic revolution getting under way then.

Sout­ine settled into his circle of émigré artis­ts in 1913, as had the slightly older Amadeo Mod­igliani in 1906. At first Soutine lived in dire pover­ty, kept alive by the food charity of Modigliani, Kikoine and Sonia Terk Delaunay. But som­ething in Soutine’s character made it impossible for him to man­age. He was always hungrier, dirtier and more needy than the others. Today I would read it as chronic anxiety, but I cannot find any contemporary diagnosis.

Luckily for Soutine, he was admitted into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, probably because his ear­liest art training in Lithuania had been good. And al­though he was uncouth and unmannered, he did read poets and phil­osophers, and admired the works of Rembrandt, Courb­et and Bonnard.

Expressionism was intense, passion­ate and highly personal, based on the concept of the paint­er's canvas as a display for his emotions. Vio­lent, unreal colour and dramatic brush-work made Ex­press­ionist painting rock! Its emphasis and distortion, from the artist’s emot­ion­­al resp­onse to the sitter, was a reaction to C19th shallow­ness. In Man with Ribbons 1921, the model’s head and neck were elong­ated and an agitated flicker ran down the full length of the body. The colours were unpolished and the angles were rough.

Man with Ribbons

Soutine and other ot­her Eastern European Jews were seen to have brought with them a general sense of the hope­less­ness that comes with be­ing ex pats. Unwil­ling to adjust to the prevail­ing rules, they ex­p­ressed their feel­ings in their art by the bol­dness of their strokes and colours. Freedom allowed them to exper­ience everything for the first time. I am guessing this was because of hostile reg­imes in Eastern Eu­rope, not because of family controls.

In 1919-22 Soutine painted in Ceret, a small town in the Pyrenees. There his work reached its most express­ion­istic extreme and there he exec­u­t­ed a series of very distort­ed landscapes with agitated rhythms. I didn’t like his early landscapes at Ceret: they were messy in concept and in practice. In any case he was totally isolated in Ceret since he didn’t speak a word of Catalan. Worse still, the death of Modig­liani in 1920 left Soutine bereft. Only Modigliani, his mentor and teacher, had regarded Soutine as a genius.

Soutine spent 3 years there and painted 200 works, including Woman in Red 1922. What kind of fev­er­ish, Van Gogh-like passion drove him to pro­duce these distorted and viol­en­tly coloured works? Were the dis­t­ort­ions reflec­tions of his inner disturb­ance or of his inspir­at­ion?

Woman in Red

Soutine visited his favourite southern towns each summer: Cagnes, Montpellier, Nimes, Beziers. His friends drove him around for days, in search of the perfect image. Once he found what he wanted, he worked with such concentration that he lost all sense of time and place. This made for good paintings, but it was very tough on his friendships.
I would not have included any landscapes since I am not sure that expressionism works as well for inanimate objects as it does for human beings. However toomanyfrogsand1brit discussed chaïm soutine 's stint in Cagnes and in Céret. This blog suggested that "Soutine depicted villages all in a jumble, like hazy memories souvenired from Mediterranean towns, basked in a warm sunlight but lacking structure and foundation. It was just like German Expressionism mixed with one too many beakers of pastis!" Great description.

View of Cagnes, 1924

Soutine was only seen as bad-tempered and unsociab­le by men. To women he was cute. And he stayed in contact with his ex pat friends in Mont­par­­nasse, painted their portraits eg Kisling C1925 and treated their portraits with respect.

The American collector Dr Albert Barnes arrived in Paris in Dec 1922, to enlarge his own collection. Paul Guillaume escorted the man around the galleries and artist studios for several weeks, but nothing part­ic­ularly grabbed his attention. Finally Barnes was visiting a studio to see a Modigliani, and noticed in the corner a work that immed­iate­ly caught his eye: Soutine’s The Little Pastry Cook 1923. Barnes wanted to buy it straight away. Guillaume took Barnes to Zborowski who had a number of rec­ent landscapes that Soutine had painted, and Barnes bought them all.

Little Pastry Cook

Soutine worked intensely and managed to sell 100 of his works to Dr Barnes. The sale of his pictures in 1923 was his first big succ­ess after years of poverty and Soutine was launched. Barnes opened his Foundation and Museum, in Merion in the USA in 1924.

Having previously known poverty, Sou­tine now enjoyed a comfortable life and could stay at luxury hotels and spas: he divided his time between Paris, the Riviera and the Pyrenees. In towns where he and Zborowski went to take waters, he observed the staff and painted the well-known series of bellboys and waiters. Soutine seems to have felt a bond with these lowly workers, victims of a rejection he himself had experienced. Through typical workers, Soutine evoked the endless mass of the working class eg Room-service Waiter c1927 (below).

Sout­ine himself ac­k­n­owledged that he was at least once saved from suic­ide by a fr­iend. Obses­sed by forms and colours, and dejected and unsatisfied, Soutine destroyed many paintings during fits of des­p­air. This may explain why such a passionate artist left relatively few paintings. The Great Depression years were terrible for Zborowski who died bankrup­ted in 1932. Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing were pass­ionate ab­out art and they took it upon themselves to buy Soutine’s works AND to have him as a guest in their rural property near Chart­res every year from 1930 on. He was not well, but he was well looked after by the Castaings and even fell in love (with Gerda Groth).

Oscar Grillo has a painting of a Naked Woman by Soutine that I have never seen before. Might it have been of Gerda Groth?

In 1937 in Paris there was an Exhibition of Indep­endent Art where he was at last hailed as a great painter. Profile of a Woman 1937 was highly thought of, even though the same painting 15 years ear­lier would have been dismissed. In 1937 he rented a studio at Vil­la Seur­at. The sculptor Chana Orloff was there often and wrote about Soutine’s painting habits.

Sadly his glory was short-lived. In 1940 Groth was deported. A few months after the in­vasion of France by Germans, he fled Pa­ris in order to escape the Vichy pol­ice and Gestapo. Soutine was forced to seek shelter wher­ever he could doss down. Suffering from a bleed­ing st­omach ulcer in 1943, he had to leave his hid­ing place to undergo em­ergency surg­ery but died a few hours later.

It is ironic that Soutine largely had a miser­able life, yet he became a legend after his death. I liked Norman Kleeblatt’s and Kenneth Silver’s conclusion: that Chaim Soutine didn't quite fit into a particular era, style or movement.


Hels said...

Hi Helen,
I just wanting to say thanks for the mention - being not so technologically savvy, I couldn't figure out how to leave a comment on your site, but it was appreciated!
Bettina (toomanyfrogs)

Tess Kincaid said...

Delightful post, Hels! I enjoyed seeing these additional Soutine pieces. Thanks for the mention, too!

Hels said...

From Robert G...

Thank you for your mention of Chiam Soutine in your blog. I traveled to Paris about 15 years ago and saw his paintings of the "Room Service Waiter" and the "Pastry Cook with Red Handkerchief" at the Gallerie
L'Orangerie. They stayed in the back of my mind for many years and then I went back to school to study culinary arts as a new career. They are among my favorite paintings and so it was enlightening to read about the artist on your blog.

Thank you again.
Robert G
Seattle, WA

Oscar Grillo said...

Female Nude-Nu(Eve)from 1933. Oil on canvass, 18,1/8 X 10,5/8 inches. Since 1950 in The Colin Collection, New York. To me she looks like Paulette Jourdain.
I saw it in 1981 in a very large Soutine's retrospective in London. Beautifully painted work!!!

Tanya Ott said...

Hi Helen,

Just wanted to leave you a note to say I just discovered your blog while looking for a good photo for our Family Food Blog "Necessary Pleasures". The Soutine baker was perfect! (BTW, we linked back to your blog from ours... here's the link: http://necessarypleasures.blogspot.com/2011/02/groceries-pt-1-how-much-do-you-spend.html

Also, if you or any of your readers are interested -- my 12 year old daughter is on a "Cuisines of the World" adventure, making a new dish from a different country each week. We'd love to have suggestions from Australia or anywhere else that's not the U.S.




Hels said...

Mrs Mann said...

Dear Helen,
I've just been reading your wonderful Blog on Soutine, an artist I have passionately admired for decades.

I'd like to draw your attention to the work by my late husband, Cyril Mann (1911-80), whose expressive figurative art done over nearly half a century has elements in common with that of Soutine.

This year marks the centenary of Cyril's birth. It will be marked with the publication of a new folio, concentrating on a single painting, which you can see in the Gallery part of his website. It is called "Sunny Morning, St Paul's" and was painted in 1948 and exhibited at Wildenstein's, Bond Street, in an exhibition called "Artists of Fame and Promise".

The British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings has recently acquired six of my hubands drawings, done over a period of more than 40 years, from the late-thirties in Paris, to the 1970s in London. My husband trained at the Royal Academy in London and also studied in Paris before the War, before I, his second wife, was born.

Thank you for your attention and please continue to "spread the word", as it is still a struggle to get people to appreciate figurative art. See www.cyrilmann.co.uk

Hels said...

Mrs Mann

many thanks. I hope the work goes very well indeed. And I hope Chaim Soutine is creating a link with your late husband in art heaven :)

John & Valeria said...

Dear Blogger Helen

We came across your blogging spot and your excellent short essay on Soutine - and loved it for its tentative insights into his art and personality. Both great fan of him.

Valeria as an artist's partner/agent who had the chance to see two great group exhibitions last time in Europe (Vienna or Budapest) and was fascinated by Soutine's portraits of servants, maids etc. and John as an artist who probably feels very close to somebody like him - starting out with the traditional classic artists and ending up with a very individual language.

Thank you again.
John & Valeria

Hels said...

John & Valeria

you are welcome!

Despite Soutine's life being cut tragically short during WW2, his oeuvre was big enough for us to appreciate his talents today. I wish those exhibitions would come to Australia.

Hels said...


well done. I hope it went very well indeed.

Hels said...

Willow and Robert

you might like to see Chaim Soutine's Expressionist Landscapes at http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/chaim-soutines-expressionist-landscapes.html

Hels said...

In writing about Francis Bacon, Janet Hawley included the following quote (Sydney Morning Herald 3/11/12).

Hirst lavishes praise on Bacon. “He’s up there with Goya, Soutine and Van Gogh: dirty painters who wrestle with the dark stuff. They give you the shivers, his best paintings".

While many regard Bacon as the greatest figurative painter of the second half of the C20th, those who aren’t seduced by the artist’s fluent, painterly hand and lush colourist skills label him “a monster of depravity” and “the black night of the C20th soul”.

Was this just a cheap throwaway line about Soutine?

Christie's New York said...

Christie’s New York sold Chaim Soutine’s “Le Petit Patissier” for $18+ million, exceeding Soutine’s previous auction record of $17.2 million, set in 2007 at Sotheby’s.

Tablet said...

Soutine’s work was first introduced to American audiences in 1950 in his eponymous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his seminal essay, exhibition curator Monroe Wheeler wrote of Soutine: looking at Soutine’s body of work, it does in fact emanate tragedy.

Though further exhibitions, catalogs, and scholarship have emerged in the past half century—notably significant exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968 and at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1998 that have contributed tremendous scholarship to his legacy—the vision of Soutine as a tragedian has nonetheless prevailed.

Now a Chelsea gallery helps reassess the Lithuanian-born artist’s important work—and reveals it as anything but tragic.

Hels said...


I hope people go to the Chelsea Exhibition.. Soutine is one of my favourites of the Paris School.

I would just disagree on one issue. Dr Albert Barnes first introduced Soutine to American audiences in 1923 when he bought every (60?) Soutine painting he could find and showed them in his own collection in Pennsylvania.

Joseph said...


You will value the full review.

Although the Helly Nahmad Gallery presented Soutine together with Francis Bacon in 2011; Paul Kasmin put on a well-reviewed exhibition, Life in Death, in New York in 2014; and the Courtauld Gallery’s excellent show in London, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys was on view last winter; there’s still a lot to think about when looking at this deep and tumultuous art. The Jewish Museum has done a splendid job of showcasing the paintings as masterpieces of modernism. It runs from 4th May until 16th September 2018 in New York.

Frances Brent

Hels said...


Thank you!! The Courtauld Gallery Chaïm Soutine Exhibition (ended early 2018) was excellent. Alas this was the first time Soutine has been exhibited in Britain for decades and I had to rely on the catalogue and the writeups. The Jewish Museum in New York will need to be very special: