I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I visited the Courtauld Gallery to see an exhibition of Chaim Soutine’s portraits, with my friend, Nick Johnston. For sure, I knew some of Soutine’s paintings from reproductions – for example, the paintings of beef carcasses – but I hadn’t had a chance to see his work in the flesh until today. Even so, I was looking forward to taking a break from my own work and spending some time learning more about this important artist – after all, he had been influential in the development of Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, all members of the so-called ‘School of London’ that I’d admired as a student.
While I’ve visited quite a few art museums in the last few years (most recently the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest), I hadn’t been to the Courtauld Gallery, housed in the west wing of London’s Somerset House, so I took an instant liking to its modest size and sober style. It was Wednesday mid-afternoon, besides, so spending time examining the canvases up close wouldn’t be a problem, as the gallery wasn’t too busy.
As Nick and I walked up the winding, stone steps to the second floor, we chatted about what to expect, as he had already seen the exhibition the weekend before and admired Soutine. On the way, we passed through Room 8, which contains examples of Impressionist landscapes, including works by George Seurat, Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet.
An Impressionist Jumps Out
Right away, a painting by Seurat caught my attention, entitled: “The Bridge at Courbevoie.” I pointed out to Nick how subtle and atmospheric the colour palette in this small, urban landscape was, but above all the milk-coloured sky, and speckled greens of the sloping riverbank. I also admired how Seurat used the verticals in the picture – the poles in the water and their reflections, the solitary figures, the sail of the moored boat, and the smoking chimney stack in the distance – to create a feeling of unity and rhythm, while contrasting these elements against the horizontal of the bridge and the diagonal of the riverbank. A black tree in the right foreground functioned as a repoussoir, framing and balancing the composition perfectly.
Nick and I also marvelled at the sheer, obsessive patience Seurat needed to create this experimental painting, as its laid down entirely with tiny, coloured dots (a technique called Pointillism), which merge and resolve into an almost transparent luminosity, when you move a few steps back from the picture.
Stumbling Across Some Post-War British Painting
Still talking about Seurat, we found ourselves wandering into Room 13, where works by Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Lucien Freud were on display. Although it’s Freud’s portrait, ‘Girl with Roses’ that you see first as you enter the room, with its unsettling effect and almost Northern Renaissance attention to detail, it’s the Auerbach and Kossoff paintings that, in my opinion, have the most visceral impact. Lit from above by spotlights, these paintings literally emerge from the canvas in thick, topological swirls, peaks and encrusted lines. ‘Rebuilding the Empire Cinema’ by Auerbach is so evocative, in fact – caked and sculpted in chocolate, clay and gravy hues – that you can almost taste the mud and smog of London, as the city strove to recover after the Blitz.
Equally impressive, Leon Kossoff’s ‘Head of Seedo’ hangs on the opposite wall. This rendering of one of the artist’s close friends is compelling enough from a distance, but when viewed up close, the portrait appears to churn and slither with all the raw, viscous potential of freshly-squeezed paint.
We might have spent longer taking in these post-war gems, but it was Soutine that we’d come to see, so we moved on to the next room and the beginning of the exhibition.
So, Who Was Chaim Soutine?
Chaim Soutine was born in Smilovitchi, in what is now modern-day Belarus, in 1893. Brought up in an extremely orthodox Jewish tradition, where any form of depiction was regarded as sinful, he was frequently punished for drawing, sometimes brutally so. Leaving home at 17, he travelled to Vilna to study fine art, then on to Paris, arriving in the city in 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I. He promptly sat and passed the entrance exam to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied under Fernand Corman, working in this renowned artist’s studio for two years.
Following this apprenticeship, the impoverished Soutine went to live and work in ‘La Ruche’, a ramshackle collection of artists’ dwellings in the Passage Dantzig, located in the Vaugirard district, painting alongside the likes of Marc Chagall and Amadeo Modigliani. It wasn’t until 1923, when his striking and idiosyncratic paintings caught the attention of the American collector, Albert C. Barnes (who bought more than 50 canvases in one go), that Soutine finally found success and financial security.
The artist died in 1943 of a perforated ulcer, while fleeing the Gestapo, and is buried in the Cimetiere du Montparnasse, in Paris.
Shock and Awe - Soutine’s Portraits of Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys
Soutine’s portraits ambushed me as soon as I saw them. I hadn’t anticipated the raw, nervous energy that met my gaze, or the deft, frenetic brushwork electrifying the images with cursive sweeps and contours. Taut colour schemes seethed with jugular reds and midnight blues; even the flesh, and whites of uniforms and aprons coursed with veins of green, yellow and orange. I was blown away.
As I mentioned, Nick had visited the exhibition the week before, so he had already decided which portraits he wanted to examine again more closely, starting with two paintings of what appeared to be the same sitter, a boy dressed in black. He liked them and said that they reminded him in a way of Bronzino’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man’, or ‘Portrait of a Young Sculptor.’ He wondered if Soutine may have had Bronzino’s work in mind when he painted them. They were entitled: ‘The Page Boy’ and ‘Portrait of a Boy.’
It was another painting, however, that whetted my appetite for Soutine, with its vibrant carmine and cadmium reds. Called ‘Butcher Boy’, it could almost be a portrait in warm, fresh blood itself. The subject, painted in three-quarter view, glares fixedly at the viewer with dark, mismatched eyes, set lopsidedly on either side of a long, tapering nose, while long streaking brushstrokes slash through the whites of his apron until it almost disintegrates into the turbulent scarlet of the background. Some contours of the head merge and fade in a similar way, as though Soutine wants to risk the cohesion of the image, to cut it apart to expose its inner workings.
Interestingly, the painting was dated c. 1919-1920, so it was very much an early example of Soutine’s portraits of working people in uniform.
They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait
Another painting that struck me as exceptional is ‘Cook with Blue Apron’, c. 1930. This is, oddly, one of only three portraits of women included in the exhibition, but its poignant, affecting subject, harmonious colour palette and fluid brushwork thrilled me. The cook stands with her hands clasped against a pale blue apron, her world-weary features sliding down her face like melting wax.
The expression is a study in subservience and fatigue, of a person beaten down by the daily grind of her life. The painting’s long, narrow canvas – a compositional feature that Soutine uses again in portrait of ‘The Chambermaid’, c. 1930 – is very effective, too, in emphasising the confining, dead-end existence of this unfortunate woman, and shows how Soutine could exploit format alongside form, colour and texture to convey narrative.
Nick commented that he could easily imagine the cook’s feet aching from standing all day but wondered how much Soutine actually empathized with his sitters, and their circumstances. While I can’t doubt Soutine’s authenticity and affinity with his subjects, it is hard to imagine the artist questioning the sitter about their lives as they posed, or if Soutine even knew, or remembered their names, afterwards.
Soutine’s Crowning Achievements
The ‘Little Pastry Cook’, c. 1921 is one of six portraits of pastry cooks included in the exhibition and arguably my favourite, although it’s a close call between that and ‘Pastry Cook of Cagnes’, c. 1922-1923 and ‘The Little Pastry Cook’, c. 1927. What makes this portrait stand apart from the others is its full-length treatment and cheeky subversion of portraiture in the Grand Manner.
The young pastry chef stands in his kitchen whites against a draped, red curtain, his left leg thrust forward, his foot so close to the canvas edge that it threatens to step beyond the limits of the painting’s elaborate gold frame. Vivid currents of colour surge through the whole picture-plane, but especially in the folds of the cook’s white tunic, and dark trousers. There is a wooden chair by his right elbow (which looks just like the chair used in ‘Pastry Cook of Cagnes’), and he is crowned with a toque blanche (chef’s hat) that could almost pass for a white biretta. All in all, he is a little prince of his trade.
At the heart of the exhibition presides the portrait of ‘Bellboy’, c. 1925 (the painting also features in all the exhibition’s advertising.) Head cocked, hands on hips, his facial features exaggerated and contemptuous, he regards us brazenly in his oversized, bright red uniform. If the pastry cook is a prince in this exhibition, then the bellboy is its jumped-up king. Nick and I both thought he resembled a marionette and agreed that there was something tawdry about him. Maybe Soutine didn’t take to him as a sitter, though it’s more likely he wanted to challenge the viewer’s expectations by presenting a bellboy who looked more likely to snub a hotel guest than to serve them.
After studying each of the 21 portraits, Nick and I left and wandered on through the Courtauld’s permanent collection.
We felt grateful that we’d had a chance to see these raw, compelling portraits, especially since it was the first time Soutine’s work had been seen in the UK in 35 years. As I’ve said, I had come to the exhibition uncertain about how I would respond to this artist’s work. But having taken the time to study and engage with these exceptional examples, I now understood why Soutine had proven so significant and influential a force in the development of other painters I admired. Certainly, I would have plenty to absorb when I got back to my studio.