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Ben Uri acquires important portrait by Soutine

— July 2012

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Chaim Soutine, La Soubrette, recently acquired by the Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art

Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art has announced an important new acquisition by Lithuanian-Jewish École de Paris artist Chaïm Soutine (1893 -1943) - one of the most celebrated and influential painters of the twentieth-century.
La Soubrette (Waiting Maid), c. 1933, is of international importance and has been acquired by private treaty through Sotheby’s, thanks to a £193,000 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant and almost equal support from the Art Fund and the V&A Purchase Grant Fund. In addition, many philanthropists from the UK, Europe and the USA have also contributed and share Ben Uri’s vision of ever strengthening its internationally renowned museum collection, and ensuring the painting is saved for London and the nation. The important acquisition – which has taken over 15 months to complete – follows on from Ben Uri’s discovery and acquisition in 2010 of the lost but now celebrated Jewish Crucifixion ‘Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio’, painted in response to the Holocaust by Marc Chagall in 1945.
About La Soubrette (Waiting Maid)
La Soubrette (Waiting Maid) is a compelling example of Soutine’s figurative work from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Focusing on a single subject in an unadorned background, the painting depicts an anonymous domestic maid dressed in the uniform of her profession. Soutine’s tactile brushwork creates a direct engagement with his subject, underlining the maid’s individuality rather than reducing it, yet her pinched face and downcast eyes express weariness and a certain submission.The portrait belongs to a period in the early 1930s when Soutine turned away from the hotel staff and cooks of his earlier portraits and towards the domestic staff of bourgeois country estates. Although less figuratively contorted and less confrontational in character, it shares a number of stylistic, thematic and compositional devices with his earlier celebrated Pastry Cooks series, particularly the focus on a working-class figure in a service profession, and the contrast of the ruddy face against the white of the uniform.
Although Soutine did not respond directly to politics or his own Jewish ethnicity, it is interesting to note that the portrait was painted in 1933, the year in which Hitler rose to power in Germany leading to the forced emigration of many European artists as a result of ethnic, religious, cultural or political persecution in their native lands. Soutine was forced to escape Paris during the Nazi occupation, only returning to have an urgent operation for perforated stomach ulcers, from which he died in Paris in 1943.
Co-author of the Soutine Catalogue Raisonné, Esti Dunow, has written of this work,

La Soubrette–‘ is a wonderful painting, representative of the work of the early to mid ΜΆ1930s in subject matter and style. The virtuoso handling of paint and brushstrokes reflects his growing fascination with earlier masters – from Rembrandt and Chardin to Corot and Courbet. The paintings impeccable provenance and its history in Britain – early exhibition in London during Soutine’s lifetime – … make it a worthy addition to the Ben Uri Collection.’
The painting has a distinguished British provenance, being purchased by Alex Reid and Lefevre Ltd in Paris on October 28, 1937 and then exhibited at their gallery in London in June 1938, when sold to the Earl of Sandwich. The painting has remained in the family since passing to the Lady Elizabeth Montagu and thence by descent to the current owners.
Soutine’s significance to British and American painting cannot be understated. His importance to artists as various as De Kooning, Pollock, and Dubuffet has been much discussed, while his substantial influence in Britain on the later ‘School of London’ group, which included Francis Bacon (most recently illustrated by the 2011 exhibition, ‘Soutine and Bacon’ held at Helly Nahmad Gallery New York curated by Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman – see catalogue essay ‘Soutine Mania in Post War British Art’ by Martin Hammer), as well as Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff is widely acknowledged; and continues to be felt today in the work of painters such as Jenny Saville, currently exhibiting at Modern Art, Oxford.
La Soubrette is a significant addition to Ben Uri’s important collection of work by émigré artists and to its growing collection of work by other artists associated with the École de Paris. Most notable is Marc Chagall, for which the museum’s scholarship of this period enabled the acquisition of one of Chagall’s most important Jewish Crucifixions from 1945, acquired at auction in Paris in 2010, as well as Sonia Delaunay, Isaac Dobrinsky, Henri Epstein, Michel Kikoïne, Chana de Kowalska, Jacques Lipchitz,  Emmanuel Mané-Katz, Elie Nadelman, Jules Pascin and Issachar Ber Ryback.

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