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The Real Thing

Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris/Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection/ Hervé Lewandowski

Chaïm Soutine: Le Village (The Village), ca. 1923

In 1931 Chaïm Soutine was moved to recreate Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654), which depicts a woman—thought to be his partner, Hendrickje Stoffels—in shallow water with her dress hiked up above her knees. Madeleine Castaing, an interior designer who had become Soutine’s patron three years earlier, and her husband, Marcellin, helped him search the countryside outside Paris for a suitable model. When at long last they found her, Soutine had to convince her husband that there was nothing untoward about his wife posing in a stream with her dress raised to midthigh. 

The model could not have been prepared for the subsequent ordeal. When a thunderstorm broke out, Soutine insisted she stay put, while he moved his brush madly across the increasingly sodden canvas. The artist always completed his paintings in a single session—if he wanted to return to a subject, he began afresh—and he forced his models to stay still for the entire sitting, complaining if they so much as shifted position.

The figure in Soutine’s Woman Bathing stands upright at center, her head tilted forward and arms akimbo, holding the skirt of her dress. The water below reflects her body, her clothing, and the grass that lines the stone steps behind her. A curve of dark blue arches above. The shady landscape feels cool and wet, almost cavelike, accentuating the woman’s warmth. Soutine rendered her exposed flesh in smatterings of yellow, green, red, and blue. Her shimmering dress, draped over her bare shoulders, mixes strokes of white and primary colors, its shadows rendered from a rubbed-down pink. Unlike in Rembrandt’s original, there is not one stretch of solid color. 

The Lewis Collection, London/Hastings Contemporary

Chaïm Soutine: Le Paysan (Peasant Boy), 1919–1920

Soutine did not work from memory, photographs, or imagination. He made his landscapes en plein air, and his portraits and still lifes were often painted from life, too. He insisted on capturing his subject exactly as he encountered it—the real thing. 

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Chaïm Sutin—“Soutine” was the French spelling—was born in 1893, the tenth of eleven children of Sara and Zalman Sutin, a mender, in Smilovichi, some thirty kilometers southeast of Minsk, in what was then the Russian Empire. The family was poor, and Chaïm was underfed; malnutrition disabled him for life and eventually contributed to his premature death. At ten he was permitted to leave heder (Jewish school) and work for his sister Celia’s husband, a tailor, in Minsk. Four years later he took a job as an assistant to a photographer in the city and enrolled in a small art school run by a man named Jacob Kruger, who waived his poorest students’ tuition fees. (It is difficult to imagine how Soutine could have afforded classes otherwise.)

After a year and a half under Kruger, and a further three at the art academy in Vilnius, Soutine joined the many Jewish artists who were leaving Eastern Europe for Paris, seeking the city’s liberal promises. (This time a doctor named Rafelkess, who had taken an interest in his work, covered the trip.) In Paris Soutine enrolled in the painter Fernand Cormon’s atelier at the École des Beaux-Arts and after a few years left to try to make a living off his art. It did not immediately go well: 1914 was an unfortunate year to launch a painting career. It was, however, a good year for Soutine to befriend his fellow Jewish artists in Paris, including Marc Chagall, Jules Pascin, and Jacques Lipchitz. They lived in La Ruche, an artists’ colony in Montparnasse founded in 1902 by the sculptor Alfred Boucher. Soutine frequented the same cafés as Picasso and revered Matisse, who later bought two of his paintings. Lipchitz introduced him to Modigliani, who became his closest confidant. Modi, as everyone called him, brought Soutine to his patrons and insisted that the dealer Léopold Zborowski take him on as a client.

When World War I broke out, Soutine applied to volunteer for a work brigade, but could not do so due to physical weakness; he suffered persistent abdominal pains as a result of a stomach condition. In 1918, worried about Modi’s health, Zborowski took him and a small group of friends, including Soutine, to the south of France. Moving from one landscape to another seems to have spurred Soutine’s creativity. In 1919 Zborowski sent him to Céret, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where he lived for three years and made his first important series. Zborowski recalled: 

He goes off into the country and lives like a tramp in a sort of pigsty. He gets up at three in the morning, and walks twenty kilometers loaded down with his paints and canvas to find a site that pleases him, and at night returns to sleep, forgetting entirely to eat a thing…. Sir! I paid him a monthly stipend for two years, without his giving me anything in return. When I finally went to [Céret] to make inquiries, I found three hundred paintings piled one on top of the other in his attic, the windows of which he had not opened once in two years “so that the canvases don’t get damaged.” When I went to go find something for him to eat, he set fire to them, giving as his excuse that he wasn’t satisfied with them. However, I managed to save a few, but only after a knock-down fight.

Upon Soutine’s return to Paris in 1922 the American collector Albert Barnes bought fifty-two of his paintings, catapulting him to celebrity in the Parisian art world. Madeleine Castaing grew close to him when they were recuperating at a spa in 1928, and after Zborowski’s financial ruin the next year, all but adopted him. Soutine was given an open invitation to her estate at Lèves, where he socialized with the likes of Erik Satie, Maurice Sachs, and Jean Cocteau. 

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The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/Avshalom Avital

Chaïm Soutine: La Place du village, Cerét (Village Square at Céret), 1920

In 1937 Soutine fell in love with Gerda Michaelis, a German Jew he met at a café in Montparnasse. Michaelis had fled Germany shortly after Hitler came to power and worked as a cleaning woman to earn her keep until she fell in love with Soutine, who urged her to quit. In truth, caring for Soutine, who soon became debilitatingly ill, was a full-time job. They remained together until France declared war on Germany, when she and other German citizens were rounded up and interred until the French surrender in 1940. After her release, Michaelis went into hiding in the south but remained devoted to Soutine until his death, though she knew he was living with another woman—Marie-Berthe Aurenche, whom he had met through Castaing.

Three months after Michaelis was released Castaing visited her in hiding to explain that she had made the introduction in the hope that Aurenche, who wasn’t Jewish, would care for Soutine as Michaelis had. (All three women were acutely aware of his ill health and need for companionship.) Castaing assured Michaelis that Soutine preferred her to Aurenche, and that she should simply wait for the war to end, when they would be reunited. In 1941 Aurenche convinced wealthy friends to hide the couple in their house in Montparnasse. They stayed there for two months before neighbors became suspicious—someone spotted Soutine taking a walk at night and made inquiries. At the end of the summer they fled to Richelieu. 

On August 7, 1943, Soutine was rushed to a hospital in terrible pain and underwent surgery for a lacerated ulcer. The country doctors, in consultation with Aurenche, decided that a more qualified surgeon was needed. They shuttled him back into Paris in an ambulance with black and white flags—but the trip, which should have taken a few hours, was lengthened as they had to avoid Nazi checkpoints. Soutine died in the hospital two days later.

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Los Angeles County Museum of Art/SCALA images, Florence

Chaïm Soutine: La Colline de Céret (Hill at Céret), ca. 1921

The retrospective of Soutine’s work currently up at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark—the first ever in that country—is suffused with the artist’s voluptuous spirit. The energy in his portraits, landscapes, and still lifes is evident to even the most casual viewer. The brushwork is rough, suggesting speed and confidence. People, animals, and objects are distorted, such that the paintings often look twisted. In Woman in Pink (1924), the subject is seated in such a way that her spine appears painfully curved. Her face, arms, and hands are all misshapen, as if gusts of wind had blown them out of place. Soutine rendered his unrealistic shapes with an unnatural palette, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, when he used disquietingly bold colors. The gnarled hands of Woman in Red Blouse (1919) are yellow; the face in his self-portrait from 1918 contains greens and yellows. The effect is almost ghoulish. 

From 1919 to 1924, an immensely productive period, he focused on landscapes, of which the Céret paintings are the best known. Picasso had lived and painted there a few years earlier; Soutine’s depiction of the countryside’s geometry reveals a Cubist influence. Space is compressed and doesn’t conform to the rules of perspective. Thick lines and corners cut through the canvases, forming angular scaffoldings, which are often painted on the same tilt. Each painting is like a single organism, its shapes and strokes bound tightly together. Soutine moved the brush quickly, so each stroke is still visible. For a thicker stretch of color, he used bigger brushes or a palette knife, or the back end of a brush, or, sometimes, his fingers. He once dislocated his thumb painting with it. 

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Landscape at Céret (1920–1921), one of the first paintings in the retrospective, shows rows of houses squeezed against one another, bending and stretching this way and that. The paint is thick and dark; impasto strokes of yellows and greens make the buildings look sickly. The houses and trees in Hill at Céret (1921) appear to be stretched both horizontally and vertically, heaving themselves upward on a single mound. Soutine reached a climax of intensity between 1921 and 1922, after which his style mellowed: the shapes of his buildings, trees, and hills become easier to discern. He grew to despise the Céret paintings. In later decades, he would hunt for them, buy them back from dealers, and rip them to shreds. 

Between 1923 and 1925 Soutine painted landscapes in Cagnes, where he set himself the task of capturing the remarkable brightness of the Côte d’Azur. These works are joyful, even whimsical; blue skies breathe deeply above swirling hills. Landscape at Cagnes (circa 1923) is made on a narrow rectangular canvas. It is filled from the upper-left corner down to the lower right with a swoop of reddish-brown structures, which the viewer recognizes as stairs because a man, painted in thin strokes of deep blue, stands near the bottom with his hands clasped behind his back. Above him and to his side, whips of green crown a few trees, which obscure a series of white and yellow buildings. The solid blue of the sky behind settles the whole composition, infusing it with oxygen.

In the late 1920s Soutine focused on series of animal still lifes—most notably fish, fowl, and beef carcasses—before turning to portraiture. He made several paintings of men in uniform. In Le Petit Pâtissier (circa 1921), a pastry chef’s cheeks are flush with patches of red, and indigo glimmers on the edges of his white suit and hat. A parallel theme occupied Soutine in the next decade: female domestics. In The Chambermaid (1930), the figure’s white apron and pink blouse is informal. Strokes of red at her ankle ground the portrait. She stands with her feet together and her hands clasped at her waist, neatly centering the composition. The mood is one of dull restraint. As the art historian Maurice Tuchman has written, in Soutine’s late portraits “timidity and passiveness replace the more animated or anguished expressions of earlier subjects…. Rarely do the later figures confront us directly. For the most part they do not gesticulate but stand or lie inertly, their hands at their side or supporting their head. They are tired; their eyes are veiled or downcast.” 

During the war years, when Soutine was in hiding in the Loire Valley, Aurenche’s friends—the ones who had hidden the couple in Montparnasse—would drive to the country to replenish his art supplies. Soutine must have been terrified; anxiety worsened his stomach ulcers, and he grew emaciated. But the paintings of that period do not in any obvious way express fear. On the contrary: in 1939 he painted one of his most tender portraits yet—Girl at Fence. It shows a little girl in a white dress with red polka dots leaning against a fence in the middle of a field. She peers off to the side, holding a globby ice cream cone up to her mouth with pink and orange hands. Trees swirl pleasantly behind her on the edge of the field; the patch of sky in the upper-right corner is a gentle baby blue. Perhaps while painting that cloudless sky Soutine forgot the encroaching darkness. 

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