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Around the galleries

Soutine – a painter’s painter

— February 2013

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Chaim Soutine, Le Garcon d'etage, 1927. © Musée d’Orsay / Sophie Boegly

Alexander Adams reports on an exhibition at the Orangerie, Paris, of the work of Chaïm Soutine

Chaïm Soutine was born near Minsk, Belarus in 1893, into a conservative Jewish community. As part of a large family (he had 10 siblings) the young Soutine experienced poverty and had to work to support his family. After training in Vilnius, in 1913 Soutine arrived in Paris. There he joined a loose community of poor immigrant artists, many of them Jewish, and became close to Jacques Lipchitz and Amadeo Modigliani.

Soutine was part of the second wave of Expressionist artists, ones who came to maturity when Expressionism (pioneered by James Ensor, Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka) had already been established as one of the dominant trends in painting of the time. Soutine painted a range of subjects – landscapes, portraits and still-lifes – in an intensely personal way, describing subjects with dramatic outlines, emphatic features and bold brushwork in vivid colours. Stylistically and thematically, he owes more to Van Gogh than to any of the German Expressionists.

Despite the grinding poverty of his early years, Soutine was immensely productive. At the start of his time in Paris, a dealer paid him five francs per day in return for his entire output. In 1919 the artist first travelled south to live and work in Ceret in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where he produced many of his most daring landscapes. In 1922 the American collector, wealthy chemist Dr Alfred C. Barnes, purchased a large group of his work. Thereafter the painter had a degree of recognition and security, featuring in many of the more prestigious private collections of the day. By the time of his death in 1943 due to a stomach ulcer, Soutine had had many solo exhibitions in Europe and America and was far from the outcast peintre maudit he had been in his youth.

The portraits show Soutine’s sympathy for his subjects and an eye for the vigorously distinct and aberrant. Some are close to Daumier’s comic depictions of common types, exemplifying the ‘character’ of their professions: a combative concierge, the louche roué, the supercilious grande dame.  Yet Soutine never mocks the way that Daumier does. He is thoughtful and attentive to nuance. Landscapes are more noticeably exaggerated, with houses leaning like saplings in a windstorm, horizons bent like hairpins. When Soutine paints trees, they are blown off their axes, foliage slashed on in licks of unmixed colours. Despite the brio of these passionate renderings, they are quite lifelike.

The still-lifes are diverse and exciting, the paint exactly describing the subjects yet being unmistakably itself as material. In Hare Hanging by Green Shutter (c. 1924–5) the pelt of the dead hare is depicted realistically but painted with great gusto, the wet-on-wet paint mixing roughly. The weight and texture of what Soutine observed became the guide as to how he would paint it, which is the antithesis of the way German Expressionists worked. They imposed their favourite colour schemes on their subjects, turning motifs into puppets animated by the painter’s emotions. What is striking about Soutine’s still-lifes is not how ‘distorted’ they are but how truthful. The drawing is largely accurate and the colours of the motifs are all derived from observation.

Soutine seems to have relished painting meat. His still-lifes are replete with fowl, beef, hares, fish and so forth. It is a loss that there is only one painting of a nude by Soutine in existence. For whatever reason, Soutine neglected a theme to which he would have been well able to do justice.

The Orangerie’s exhibition is full of excellent and typical examples of Soutine’s painting, borrowed from museums and private collection in Europe and America. The catalogue is a good souvenir of the exhibition but the colour accuracy is poor, especially with blues too warm. The backgrounds of the beef carcasses are pthalo or Prussian blue, not the warm, almost violet blue of the illustrations. The pure white of one of the beef paintings is reproduced as a light grey-blue.

Soutine is a real ‘painter’s painter’, beloved by later artists for the energy, invention and – most of all – lush, physical presence of his paintings. Painters such as Francis Bacon, Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning responded strongly to the way Soutine used paint in a way that was both descriptive but also wonderfully sensual. Viewing the paintings first hand, it is easy to see why he is venerated by fellow painters. His touch and expression are lost in reproduction. The only way to understand him is to view him first hand. The last major British exhibition of Soutine took place half a century ago (1963). It is high time for another.


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

Media credit: © Musée d’Orsay / Sophie Boegly

Editor's notes

‘Chaïm Soutine: l’ordre du chaos’ is at  Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, until 21 January 2013. A hardback catalogue is available, French language only, from the museum, 175pp., €35.00.

See our review of the recent Tate exhibition of the late work of Edvard Munch, mentioned on this page.

In our July 2012 issue we reported on the acquisition of an important Soutine painting by London's Ben Uri gallery. We also covered this in more detail in September's issue.

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