Chaim Soutine

A Belarusian yeshiva boy becomes an icon of Parisian art.

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Soutine's temperament and capricious character, certainly exacerbated by the company he kept, was always sabotaging his work, which he seldom showed publicly. In furious rages he would destroy his paintings, lash out at his friends and console himself with thoughts of suicide--which he once attempted (he was saved by his friend Kremegne). When his best friend Modigliani died prematurely in 1920, Soutine was gravely affected. Many critics attributed aspects of his temperament to his Jewish background and his experience with poverty and persecution in the shtetl. 

Soutine's landscapes communicate his depression and anguish, with their twisted, sinewy trees, distorted houses and tempestuous expanses. From 1918 to 1923, Soutine traveled frequently to the south of France and remained for a couple of years in Ceret, a small town in the Pyrenees. His apocalyptic visions of the town (seen in Houses of Ceret, 1920), show a row of houses leaning away from the wind and black sky as if in the clutch of terror. The surrounding greenery is twisted and thick with paint; the viewer senses Soutine's pervading sorrow and anxiety. The Road at Cagnes (1922-23) is a classic of this period: its stark navy and chartreuse coloring dramatically contours a picturesque road that has become foreboding and tormented under Soutine's brush.

Fame Arrives

When Soutine returned to Paris, he shifted his focus to portraits. He was particularly fascinated by maids and valets, and one of his best known portraits is the Little Pastry Cook (1921), which takes a pitying glance at a comical, diminutive chef whose body's wavy elongation had become a signature of Soutine's style.

Le Petit Patissier

Le Petit Patissier
Portland Art Museum
(c) 2006 Artists Rights Society
New York/ADAGP, Paris

An impromptu studio visit in 1923 from Albert Barnes, the wealthy American collector, was the windfall of fortune that Soutine had been waiting for. Barnes foresaw Soutine's work as the next movement in European painting and bought 52 of his paintings in one trip. The Barnes Collection, located outside of Philadelphia, now has the largest collection of Soutines in the world, and it was Barnes who helped bring world renown to the artist. He introduced Soutine to French taste-maker Madeleine Castaing, who became the artist's patroness. She and her husband, Marcellin, bought most of his works and made their residence near Chartres a Soutine atelier. From their home, Soutine was afforded the luxury to paint anything he wanted, free from the pressures of making a living and living in cramped Parisian quarters.

It was during this period in the late 1920s and 30s that Soutine's reputation advanced. His initial naïve outsider primitivism had morphed into critically acclaimed work hailed as the inheritance of the European painting tradition. His career trajectory mirrored his life's arc. Soutine had transformed from a shtetl yeshiva boy into an assimilated French painter.

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Jessica Kraft

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