Chaim Soutine - Biography and Legacy
Smilavichy, Russian Empire
Biography of Chaim Soutine
Chaim Soutine was born and raised in the small Jewish settlement of Smilavichy, near Minsk, in what is present-day Belarus. The tenth of 11 children, his father was a tailor and Soutine was raised under extremely modest means. His upbringing was fairly typical of Russian-born Jews during this era, who were forced to endure persecution and discrimination from a hostile government. Soutine's interest in drawing incurred opposition within his Orthodox family and the small community because of Talmudic proscriptions regarding images. According to an oft-recounted story, young Soutine was beaten in punishment after presenting a portrait to a rabbi. The suffering he experienced within the Jewish ghetto of his youth is believed to have worked its way into his later canvases.
At age 16, Soutine traveled to Minsk and, from 1910 to 1913, studied at the Vilna Academy of Fine Arts (in what is now the town of Vilnius), one of the few academies of its kind that accepted Jews. While enrolled, Soutine was exposed to artists from the Russian avant-garde as well as older Russian masters like renowned seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky and landscape artist Fyodor Alekseev. Soutine excelled at drawing and painting during his early tutelage, yet instructors noted the young artist's penchant for tragedy and visually dark subject matter.
Following his training at Vilna, at age 19, Soutine traveled to Paris with fellow students Pinchus Kremegne and Marcel Kikoine and enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, working for two years in the studio of Fernand Cormon, a highly respected historical painter. He also began making frequent visits to the Louvre and conducted close studies of works by the likes of Francisco Goya, El Greco, Jacopo Tintoretto, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Gustave Courbet. The paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn, however, made a distinct impact on the young Soutine, who came to adore the master's portraiture, still lifes, and dramatic use of light. Later in life, Soutine reportedly made several trips by train to Amsterdam and slept on a park bench outside of the Rijksmuseum, just for the chance to spend more time with the museum's Rembrandt collection.
In 1915, while living in La Ruche - literally "The Beehive" - a rather shabby artist's residence in the southwestern outskirts of Paris, friend and fellow artist Jacques Lipchitz introduced Soutine to Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian-Jewish emigre, who had a great influence on Soutine's career. Soutine was quite shy, both with women and in general, and had an intense and temperamental manner that further complicated socializing and establishing a career. His newfound friendship with Modigliani, however, helped assuage these difficulties, as Soutine stated, "He gave me confidence in myself." A great admirer of Soutine's early portraits and still lifes of food, Modigliani soon introduced Soutine to his art dealer, Leopold Zborowski, who almost immediately offered to represent Soutine. Modigliani and Soutine's friendship was also commemorated by a series of portraits the artists made of one another in 1917.
Soutine chose to eschew the dominant early-20th-century avant-garde trends of Cubism, Dada, and Futurism in favor of a more traditional approach, honing his skills as a portraitist and painter of still lifes. Food in particular was a constant obsession in his work, which likely stemmed from its central role in Jewish ritual. Early examples of this interest include Still Life with Tureen (1914-15) and Still Life with Herrings (1916), while a decade later more grisly examples followed like Flayed Rabbit (1924) and his series of beef carcasses. In his repeated use of beef, poultry, fish, and other animal carcasses as subject matter over the course of several decades, one can surmise that Soutine also held an obsessive interest in death.
As World War I drew to a close, Soutine returned to Paris with the financial support of Zborowski, following three years of living in the provinces. He began to create a great number of portraits of local townspeople and service laborers like cooks, maids, and boot polishers, most of whom he met randomly. While in Ceret in the French Pyrenees and in Cagnes during the early 1920s, Soutine devoted himself to the creation of dramatically expressionist landscapes and natural scenes of the French peasantry, infusing the typically Impressionist and Post-Impressionist subject matter with his darkly pseudo-abstract approach that reflected his continued angst and sorrow regardless of his surroudings.
The 1920s were Soutine's most productive years and, consequently, the most lucrative time of his career. In 1923, while Soutine's works were exhibited at the gallery of art dealer Paul Guillame, American collector Albert C. Barnes was quite taken with one of Soutine's portraits of a pastry cook. Guillame privately showed him more of Soutine's work, the bulk of which the collector promptly purchased. Dr. Barnes' patronage raised the price for all of Soutine's work and allowed him to live in financial stability for the rest of his career. His first dealer and patron, Zborowski, died in 1932, but Soutine received generous support from the wealthy French collectors Madeleine and Marcellin Castaing, who welcomed Soutine to stay at their summer home in Leves from 1930 to '35. During the 1930s, Soutine participated in a number of well-received exhibitions, including a solo show in Chicago and group exhibition entitled The Origins and Development of International Independent Art in Paris.
Late Period and Death
On the eve of World War II, Soutine had been living with his companion and nurse-maid Gerda, a Jewish-German woman who fled to Paris in 1935. Gerda was forcibly removed to a camp for German nationals in 1940, as the Nazis neared France. At the loss of their stable relationship, Soutine was distraught. However, later that year Soutine became romantically involved with Max Ernst's former wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, who remained his muse and mistress until his death. With the Nazi invasion of Paris in the summer of 1940, Soutine was eventually forced to flee his apartment in Paris for fear of being captured by the Gestapo. The years that followed were Soutine's darkest, as he was forced from a safe house in Paris to villages in the Loire valley, moving from place to place with forged passports. The stress of living like a hunted man aggravated Soutine's ulcers. He was rushed to a hospital in Chinon due to anemia and pain, but his condition required an emergency surgery in Paris. The travel and operation took over 24 hours, and Soutine died of a perforated ulcer on August 9, 1943, at 50 years old.
The Legacy of Chaim Soutine
Despite being the lone Expressionist in Paris amidst the Cubists and Dadaists, Soutine secured a stable career for himself and paved the way for later avant-gardes. His work represents an important precursor to Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism, especially his animal carcass paintings, which he painted with great rapidity, and his landscapes, which reflect the all-over compositions and gestural brushwork adopted by later artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Recent exhibitions have demonstrated the direct influence Soutine's meat still lifes had on Francis Bacon, evidenced by the presence of sides of beef in several works by the British artist. Similarly, the thick impasto of Soutine's canvases and his dramatically simplified rendering of human subjects show a clear link to the Art Brut work of Jean Dubuffet.