Sunday, 8 February 2015


“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” - Henry Ward Beecher

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) was born in Russia and brought up in a Lithuanian Jewish ghetto where he encountered community opposition for his propensity for drawing images, which contravened Talmudic law. He arrived in Paris in 1913, where he initially lived in desperate poverty. In 1915 he met Modigliani, with whom he developed a close friendship. His work was tenuously connected with the Parisian mainstream, but has a recognisable debt to Fauvism and Expressionism. Although his financial condition improved suddenly after 1923 through growing patronage, he continued to produce disturbing works in which extremely distorted images were painted with intensely heightened colours. His “Arbre Couché” (above), painted during 1923-4 is representative of this period.

Soutine’s life had changed radically after the American collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, bought many of his canvases in 1923. Having previously known poverty, Soutine now enjoyed a comfortable life and could stay at luxury hotels and spas. At Châtelguyon, Puy-de-Dôme, where he often went to take waters with his friends and patrons Marcellin and Madeline Castaing, he observed the staff and painted the well-known series of bellboys and waiters. Soutine seems to have felt a bond with these despised workers, victims of a rejection he himself had experienced. Through characteristic individuals, such as the room-service waiter of this painting, Soutine evoked the boundless mass of the oppressed.

Modigliani introduced Soutine to the art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who enabled him to spend three years (1919–22) painting at Céret in the south of France. The feverish, visionary landscapes Soutine painted there marked the emergence of his mature style. Soutine spent most of the remainder of his life in Paris. He exhibited little during his lifetime and relentlessly reworked or destroyed old canvases.

Soutine’s portraits from the 1920s, distinguished by their subjects’ twisted faces and distorted limbs and by the emphasis in each canvas on one brilliant colour, frequently red, are among his most expressive works. He seldom showed his works, but he did take part in the important exhibition “The Origins and Development of International Independent Art” held at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in 1937 in Paris, where he was at last hailed as a great painter. Soon afterwards France was invaded by German troops.

As a Jew, Soutine had to escape from the French capital and hide in order to avoid arrest by the Gestapo. He moved from one place to another and was sometimes forced to seek shelter in forests, sleeping outdoors. Suffering from a stomach ulcer and bleeding badly, he left a safe hiding place for Paris in order to undergo emergency surgery, which failed to save his life. On August 9, 1943, Chaïm Soutine died of a perforated ulcer. He was interred in Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.

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