Chaim Soutine

A Belarusian yeshiva boy becomes an icon of Parisian art.

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Buildings sway and undulate, faces appear pensive and distorted, and landscapes express all the angst and psychological tumult of a young emigre's life. In the paintings of Chaim Soutine (paintred below by Amedeo Modigliani), the classic subjects of art history meet a new, vibrantly charged aesthetic that combined the artist's Jewish sensibility with the energy of the avant-garde. Compared to artists as different as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollack, Soutine's work bridged the divide between the Cubism and Fauvism that influenced him and the abstract expressionism that was to come after him.

The Early Years

Born in 1893 outside of Minsk, Belarus as the 10th child in an Orthodox Jewish family, Soutine rebelled against his tradition during adolescence and enrolled in the art school in Vilnius. At the age of 20, after showing much promise in his early work, he moved to Paris with two of his art school friends, Pinchus Kremegne and Michel Kikoine. There he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under Fernand Cormon and took a room in the notorious artists flat, La Ruche, in Montparnasse.

In his 20s, Soutine live the life of a Parisian bohemian, spending late nights drinking in bars with other artists and his afternoons recovering and working madly in his studio. Soutine relished the freedom of his new French life and made friends with several of the notable artists of the time. Yet his closest companions were always other Jews. Soutine and Amadeo Modigliani, a Sephardic émigré from Italy, shared not only a flat, but stylistic innovations, models, and the same dealer.

During this early period, Soutine was known for his still lifes. Freed from the restrictions of salon-style classicism, in which artists were expected to paint historical tableaux, Soutine and his peers were experimenting with shape and texture and pursuing new visions of everyday objects. Still Life with Fish  (1921) shows how Soutine was playing with the application of paint, allowing it to thicken into an almost sculptural expression.

Raw and Primitive

Carcass of Beef

Carcass of Beef
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
(c) 2006 Artists Rights Society
New York/ADAGP, Paris

Many of his still lifes reject the bourgeois taste for traditionally beautiful objects; he became fixated on fish and meat carcasses, the visceral intensity of putrefying flesh. His paintings (and his personality) were raw and primitive. Indeed even his painting method had a bit of savagery. At one point while painting Carcass of Beef (1924), his neighbors called the police because of the stench of the decaying animal in his studio. When police arrived, they received a lecture from an irate Soutine, who admonished them about disturbing him as he did his greatest work.

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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.