The famous painter Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) was born in 1893 in the town of Śmiłavičy near Minsk in the poor Jewish family. He was the tenth child in the family.
The father of this future artist had a despotic personality. His behavior was rough, even tyrannical, and he beat his children whenever they did something wrong. The one to suffer the most from him was the unsubmissive, rebellious Chaïm, who burned with a sinful passion for art in violation of the Second Commandment. Thus, he felt unsafe at home and sought refuge in nature. (1)
In Vilnius, Soutine’s cultural interests emerged as he absorbed lectures on the history and theory of art. This good-looking youth with regular features went to the theater, read literature and poetry, had a romance with a young actress, and later kept company with an educated Jewish girl who was the daughter of a dentist. This cultured family took him under their wing, helped him materially, and allowed him to borrow books from their home library. In Vilnius, for the first time in his life, Chaïm was able to devote himself wholeheartedly to his ruling passion for painting. According to Kikoïne, he put the other students in the shade with the superbly painted, sad motifs in his pictures. The Vilnius School of Drawing is where Soutine emerged as a highly promising painter. Here, as they leafed through books and periodicals with reproductions of French modern art, and as they listened to their teachers’ stories about the Paris art scene, many young Jewish artists dreamt of moving to this center of democratic cultural traditions with its promise of the recognition and glory they so longed for. (3)
Different texts give different dates for Soutine’s arrival in Paris, but he probably arrived on June 14, 1913. Here, he and Kikoïne found Krémègne, who had arrived earlier, and the three friends settled down together in Montparnasse in a colony for poor artists – la Ruche (the Hive) on the Passage Dantzig on the Left Bank of the Seine. This round reconstructed building contained many small studios in which artists, most of them poor immigrants, lived and worked. As we shall see later, the Hive became the true cradle of the École de Paris: many of the most famous avant-garde artists of that time either came from here or were connected with this place. At the Hive, Soutine’s neighbors included Marc Chagall, Ossip Zadkine, Moïse Kisling, Alexander Archipenko, Oscar Miestchaninoff, Emmanuel Mané-Katz, Yehudo Epstein, Diego Rivera, and many other artists who have entered the history of modern art. Not knowing French, Soutine had difficulty integrating into this new environment. He lived in poverty and joined the ranks of the Jewish artists from Lita who had settled at la Ruche and most of whom communicated at first only in Yiddish, Russian, or sometimes Polish. For a long time, Soutine spoke a mixture of French, Yiddish, and Russian that the French found difficult to understand. (4)
After arriving in Paris, during 1913-1915, together with Kikoïne and Mané-Katz, Soutine attended Fernand Cormon’s popular atelier, whose earlier students had included Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Émile Bernard. At this time, he admired the painting of Cézanne and van Gogh. Soon, however, Soutine was disappointed in this studio: unlike Vilnius, where students and teachers had constantly interacted, the students here did not get much attention from their instructor. Since attending here cost hard-earned money, he soon abandoned these studies. Moreover, it was here that he understood, like a Buddhist adept who had achieved enlightenment, that the best school for an artist in Paris is the Louvre, which allows the direct study of pictures by great masters. (5)
At first, this artist felt uncomfortable in Paris. Seeking refuge in a colorful metropolis filled with contrasts, he settled in a familiar and spiritually close linguistic environment. In this way, he became part of the community of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and associated mainly with artists from Lita: Pinchus Krémègne, Michel Kikoïne, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Emmanuel Mané-Katz, Yehudo Epstein, Léon Indenbaum, Oscar Miestchaninoff, and many others. Later, he associated with Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, and Marie Laurencin, the sculptors Ossip Zadkine, Alexander Archipenko, and Chana Orloff, the poets Blaise Cendrars and Max Jacob, and the composer Erik Satie, but he did not join any modernist movement.(6)
When Modigliani first saw Soutine painting passionately at the Hive, he was enthralled by his shy smile. He was enchanted not only by the passion with which he worked but also by the fact that he undressed to paint out of fear of getting his only clothes dirty. Modigliani immediately sensed the exceptional talent of this clumsy, gangly 19-year-old youth. Soutine’s acquaintance with Modigliani was to become one of the most important events of his life, for in him he found the close friend and spiritual brother of his dreams. Kisling said that they “were inseparable spiritual brothers.” (7)
After Soutine had lived in Paris for several years, two erratic tendencies emerged in his work: the first consisted of attitudes (we will call them academic) brought from Vilnius and dominated by static composition and subdued greyish-brown colors, and the second (vital) one was more colorful, its appearance connected with the growing influence of Cézanne, van Gogh, Bonnard, and, later on, of fauvism. This latter tendency, however, was still undeveloped. For a long time it burst forth only sporadically because it was inhibited by the academic attitudes established at the school in Vilnius. (8)
Important for the transformation of Soutine’s style of painting and use of color were the trips during 1918-1922 to the southern France beloved by Parisian artists. <…> Painting in these marvelously beautiful places helped Soutine free himself from the dominion of dark and grey colors noticeable during the earlier period of his creative evolution, and as in the case of van Gogh, it liberated a passionate world of pure color. From now on, there were intense blues, greens, reds, whites, and other colors on his palette, and his canvases resounded with intonations of bright color. The change is obvious: here, he painted L’Escalier rouge à Cagnes (Red Staircase in Cagnes, 1918) and La Route montante (Uphill Road, 1918). These canvases already attest to a breakthrough toward maturity; intense, formerly uncharacteristic colors burst forth on them with elemental force – colors that take control of the entire space in the picture and give it a dynamism and vitality foreign to his earlier work. These tendencies manifest themselves even more clearly, however, in pictures painted in 1920: Paysage montagneux (Mountain Landscape), Paysage au grand arbre (Landscape With a Big Tree), and Les Platanes à Céret (Plane Trees of Céret). (9)
Essential changes in Soutine’s work are attested by the landmark pictures Les Maisons (Houses, 1921), Mistral – Paysage avec figures (Mistral – Landscape With Figures, 1921-1922), Les Grands Arbres bleus (Big Blue Trees, 1922), the figure compositions La Folle (The Madwoman, 1921-1922) and Le Petit Pâtissier (The Pastry Chef’s Boy, 1922-23), and many other splendid canvases that stand out for an expressiveness unseen in his earlier work and for their well-developed mastery of brushstroke and use of color. A relationship between emotional colors and an expressive style of painting with clear-cut traces of texture became his most important means of artistic expression. At this time, one of his most colorful landscapes, in which there is a great deal of intense van Gogh yellow, is Paysage de Cagnes (Landscape of Cagnes, 1923). In another landscape, painted at the same time and of the same name, clear light blue colors are dominant – something characteristic of Utrillo but not of Soutine. At this time, his best pictures have an especially suggestive style. They attest to the appearance of an artist with a rare new talent and a distinctive expressionistic style on the art scene of talent-rich Paris. (10)
The third decade is a time when in Soutine's career was coming the breakthrough. Notable collectors (Albert C. Barnes, Léon Zamaron) interested in his works. The journals Les Arts à Paris and L’Amour de l’art published the first articles in French devoted to Soutine’s work. (11)
In 1927 Soutine had his first solo exhibition at the Bing Gallery in Paris. Later, his work has been exhibited in Chicago, New York and London.
In Soutine's works began to prevail grotesque characters with distorted faces, distorted bodies. In Grotesque (Autoportrait de l’artiste) (Grotesque [Self-Portrait], 1922-1923), painted with a spontaneous broad brushstroke, Soutine expresses a mercilessly self-analytical and, at the same time, openly self-mocking view of himself. Here, we immediately see a huge nose, ears that stick out, fat lips, and a sickly, bent figure. (12)
Soutine's paintings include landscapes, portraits and still lifes. In 1925 he painted a series of still lifes of beef carcasses.
This attraction to all sorts of carcasses and to the bright color of blood, which constantly lights up many of Soutine’s best canvases, acquires here a qualitatively new, almost metaphysical meaning – in comparison to the minor Dutch masters, in whose works hunting trophies or juicy pieces of ham are usually only part of a visually pleasant still life that shows the abundance and variety of a table laden with food. In this respect, Soutine is indeed much closer to Rembrandt, on whose canvases a different – existential – vision primarily emerges, namely, the drama of the metamorphoses of life and death. On the other hand, however, this interest in a world flowing with blood could have been a spontaneous, subconscious protest against violence. It could have stemmed from fear of the mysterious ritual of sacrifice – a fear that developed from the study of biblical texts during childhood. (13)
The constant polemics in texts on Soutine’s work about his relationship with the Litvak cultural tradition is not accidental, for this is the key to an understanding of the distinctive nature of his work and that of the other painters around him. If we look back at the sources of Soutine’s creative legacy, it becomes obvious that, despite his spontaneous effort to escape from the oppressive influence of Orthodox Judaism, of Śmiłavičy, and of the Vilnius ghetto, he preserved until the end of his life – even if only indirectly – a tie with the world in which he was born, grew up, and spent part of his early adulthood. Later, when he was living and working in Paris, he never forgot the landscape in which he spent his childhood. The colors and images of that world lived on in the depths of his subconscious. They powerfully affected many of the main features of his work and formed his attitude toward the world, his hierarchy of images, his distinctive style of painting, and the system of colors he used. (14)
Soutine was a unique, closed personality, a lot and hard worked. Living in the international environment of Montparnasse, visiting the studios of various artists, analyzing the works of great masters at the Louvre, and learning from his friends, Soutine quickly formed his own expressionistic style resplendent with emotional colors – one that left a deep imprint on the history of modern art (15).
Artist died in 1943 in Paris and was buried in Montparnasse cemetery.
Source: (1) Andrijauskas, Antanas. Litvak Art in the Context of L’école de Paris. Vilnius: Vilniaus aukciono biblioteka, Meno rinka, 2008, p. 86. (2) Ibid., p. 88. (3) Ibid., p. 90. (4) Ibid., p. 91. (5) Ibid., p. 94. (6) Ibid., p. 92-93. (7) Ibid., p. 93. (8) Ibid., p. 94-95. (9) Ibid., p. 103. (10) Ibid., p. 104. (11) Ibid., p. 107. (12) Ibid., p. 132. (13) Ibid., p. 134. (14) Ibid., p. 142. (15) Ibid., p. 140. Source of images: Andrijauskas, Antanas. Litvak Art in the Context of L’école de Paris. Vilnius: Vilniaus aukciono biblioteka, Meno rinka, 2008.