Soutine: The power and the fury of an eccentric genius

Soutine: The power and the fury of an eccentric genius
November 1, 1988
November 1988
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[see also: Shocking Paris by Stanley Meisler]

Isolated and tormented, he once said that he was going to murder his paintings, but fortunately they are still with us.

When I graduated from the City College of New York in 1952, my Uncle Morris had a heart-to-heart talk with me. He told me to work hard, get a steady job and not spend the rest of my life struggling in a Paris garret like his cousin Soutine. "Chaim Soutine, the painter?" I asked. "You mean you've heard of him?" replied Uncle Morris.

My late Uncle Morris' ignorance might seem inexcusable. By 1952, Soutine's paintings graced the collections of the Phillips Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the Chicago Art Institute and other museums throughout the United States. MOMA and the Cleveland Museum of Art had recently mounted a major retrospective of his work. His reputation had been set in the art world for many years. Amedeo Modigliani had painted four portraits of Soutine as a young man and pronounced him a "great painter." Albert Barnes, the American doctor and art collector who had developed and marketed the popular antiseptic Argyrol, becoming immensely wealthy as a result (Book Review, Smithsonian May 1988), insured Soutine's success by buying a batch of paintings in one swoop in 1922. Soutine looked uncouth and tattered most of his life, but he was a highly regarded Expressionist painter when he died in Paris in 1943 at the age of 49.

Yet it is also true that the life and work of Soutine have long seemed somewhat obscure, especially in the United States. Postwar American books on Soutine leave great gaps in his life. He is probably best known to general readers as a strange, taciturn character who sometimes pops up in the biographies of the wild and tragic Modigliani.

It has taken a stay of several years in Paris for me to truly discover Soutine. A visitor can still see the house in which he lived with other struggling artists like Fernand Léger, and the small apartment building at 18, Villa Seurat where he did much of his later work. An admirer can still meet an old friend of Soutine's like 94-year-old Mme. Madeleine Castaing and look at her rarely exhibited Soutines. A statue of him - short, squat, a hat slouched over his eyes, hands deep in the pockets of a long winter coatstands in Gaston-Baty Square not far from his favorite cafés of Montparnasse. And a visitor to the Musée de l'Orangerie, the French national museum in the Tuileries Gardens off the Place de la Concorde, will feel the power and fury of Soutine like nowhere else on Earth.

The Orangerie houses the extraordinary modern collection of art dealer Paul Guillaume, expanded later by his widow and her second husband. Soutine introduces the collection to the public, for the curving main staircase of the Orangerie leads into a phenomenal Soutine space, with 22 of his paintings hanging on the four walls that surround the top of the stairs. All of Soutine is represented: the portraits of tense and tormented people; the wondrous, brightly colored landscapes; the strange still lifes of plucked game and slabs of beef. The landscapes are a special revelation; there is nothing pastoral and quiet about them. On my first visit, a series of five landscapes along one wall seemed to pull me relentlessly across them, as if I were caught in a whip, lashing me from one painting to another. I could understand the old joke of Modigliani describing his own drunkenness: "Everything dances around me as in a landscape by Soutine."

Chaim Soutine, an awkward, timid, poor student from czarist Russia, arrived in Paris in 1913 at the age of 19, with only a few rubles in his pocket. He was the next to last of 11 children of a Jewish tailor living in the village of Smilovichi just outside Minsk (now in Belorussia), and had studied at the School of Fine Arts in Vilna, Lithuania.

Like many another poor artist then and now, Soutine took refuge in Paris, at first in La Ruche (The Beehive), a rotund residence on the Left Bank decorated with ornate sculpture. La Ruche, financed by wealthy contributors, offered work space and apartments at low rent to painters and writers. Its tenants of that era included Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, and the Swiss poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars. Soutine moved into La Ruche with a classmate from Vilna and enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

An innocent bumpkin in a big town

Though part of the bohemian crowd, Soutine, in those days, also had the look and manner of a perpetual outsider, barely speaking French, poorly educated, an innocent bumpkin in the big town, unwashed, frightened of women, shy of everyone, saying little yet quick to anger. Despite his youth, he already had started to feel the pain of an ulcer in his stomach. It was hard to imagine him as a friend of the urbane, educated, flamboyant Modigliani. In 1915, however, the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who also had studied in Vilna, introduced them, and Soutine soon became one of the companions of Modigliani as the Italian roamed Montparnasse in the evenings, offering to sketch portraits on the terraces in exchange for drinks.

Modigliani drew and painted his friend several times. His 1917 portrait of Soutine in the National Gallery of Art in Washington reflects all the fear and awkwardness in a coarse-looking young man. His shirt is askew, his hair unkempt. But the portrait also reveals a Soutine of quiet gentleness, his artistic hands in repose. Modigliani flattered and encouraged Soutine as a painter, polished his manners a little, and tempted him into a torrent of drunken binges. Yet Soutine always remained somehow apart from those who dominated the artistic world of Montparnasse. The dignified Mme. Lunia Czechowska, who sat for one of Modigliani's best-known portraits, said years later, "Soutine was never really part of the group. He kept himself hidden in a corner, like a frightened animal."

Modigliani died in a Paris hospital in January 1920 at the age of 35, suffering from a failing kidney and tuberculosis, his condition aggravated by his alcoholism. "Don't worry," he told his friend and dealer, the Polish poet Léopold Zborowski, "in Soutine, I am leaving you a man of genius." Soutine received the news of Modigliani's death while painting on the Côte d'Azur. The loss devastated him and shocked him into limiting his drinking from then on.

Modigliani had regarded Soutine as a genius, but few others did. Like most of the young painters working in Paris in those days, Soutine was largely unrecognized and unsold. That changed suddenly in 1922 when Albert Barnes arrived in Paris intent on using his Argyrol profits to augment his art collection in a huge way. Barnes noticed a Soutine portrait of a pastry chef in the gallery of the young dealer Paul Guillaume on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré. "It's a peach," the doctor said. Guillaume, whose English was weak, did not understand the expression. No, he disagreed, it was a pastry chef. Barnes demanded to see more. Guillaume led him that night to the home of Zborowski on the Left Bank near the Luxembourg Gardens. Barnes bought every Soutine he could find there, including five that Soutine had intended to burn.

Barnes wanted to meet the artist and returned to Zborowski's the next morning to do so. The dealer went to Soutine's, woke him up and made him put on his best clothes, then led him back to the waiting Barnes. The meeting between the rich, cantankerous collector and the impoverished, shy painter was not a happy one. "Barnes was seated, looking at me, and said, 'Ah, it's Soutine. Good,'" Soutine reported years later. "A boor! I will never forgive myself for having been idiot enough to go to such trouble." Later, Barnes spoke contemptuously of his find: "I caught him when he was drunk, sick and broke," he said, "and took the contents of his studio for a pittance." But Barnes always prided himself on his discovery. The doctor had bought many Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos and Modiglianis - now exhibited with the Soutines in the gallery of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia - but Soutine was the only totally unknown artist that he had discovered.

News of the Barnes purchases reached the cafés of Montparnasse quickly. Everyone talked of the good fortune of the 29-year-old Russian. Soutine suddenly found himself a celebrated painter. A little more than a year later, Zborowski began to sell Soutines regularly at good prices to other collectors. For a while, Soutine spent his new income lavishly, even taking lessons in French diction to rid himself of his Yiddish accent. But the excitement of a steady income soon palled and Soutine slipped back to his old, frugal ways. From then on, photographs usually show him in well-worn jackets and sweaters.

By all accounts, Soutine always painted in a kind of frenzy, laying his bright colors on thickly, hardly pausing to think. "Soutine painted rapidly," his friend, the sculptor Chana Orloff, recalled. "He nurtured his idea for several months and then, when ready, started the painting in fury. He worked with passion, with fever, in a trance, sometimes to the music of some Bach fugue that he played on a phonograph. Once he finished the painting, he was weak, depressed, wiped out."

Soutine had a strange ambivalence toward his own work. As a young man, he showed his paintings to a friend and said, "All that you see here is not worth anything. It is crap, even if it is better than the paintings of Modigliani and Chagall. . . .Someday I am going to murder my paintings - although these are too contemptible even for that." Later, he had no such hesitation. If his work displeased him, he would run into the kitchen, pick up a knife and slash at the canvas. Sometimes he would burn the ripped painting as well. Zborowski routinely removed paintings from Soutine's to save them from destruction. When he had the chance, Soutine would buy back some of his earlier paintings and destroy them. Sometimes he would turn so morose over the state of his art that he would not paint for months at a time.

This kind of dark mood shows in the self-portrait now in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Few painters have ever looked at themselves with so much cruelty. Soutine was not a handsome man; his nose and lips loomed too large in plain and fleshy features. But he had none of the sheer ugliness set down in this painting. The self-portrait bears the title Grotesque. Soutine painted a forlorn figure with deep, anguished eyes, a twisted ear, a distorted shoulder, an apelike arm. A critic once described the self-portrait as a "pitiless, ruthless work, ridden with self-contempt."

Unlike a fellow Expressionist, painter Oskar Kokoschka, Soutine is not known as a portrayer of friends or celebrities. Most of his models were humble people whom he stumbled upon, often in servile or apprentice positions. They included choirboys, waiters, maids and peasants. He seemed to identify with them, looking on them as lonely and apart, "When he made these portraits," a friend said, "he tried to reflect into these people the sufferings that he had endured."

Soutine painted several portraits of young pastry cooks including the one that first attracted Albert Barnes. The best known is probably The Little Pastry Cook in the Orangerie in Paris. Painted in 1922, this is often regarded as a masterpiece of color, the red handkerchief clutched in the young man's hands contrasting with the shadowed white uniform. The angular features of the youth twist into a saddened, absent gaze. The Room Service Waiter, also in the Orangerie, has a far different look, a kind of haughty contempt on curled lips and high brow that is softened somewhat by the loneliness in the eyes. Uniforms seemed to fascinate Soutine, and this ill-fitting one gave him a chance to play the deepest red of the waiter's vest against the white of his apron and the blue of the background.

In his 1928 portrait Madeleine Castaing, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Soutine did paint someone he knew well. Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing had first come upon Soutine at the Café de la Rotunde on the Boulevard du Montparnasse shortly after Modigliani died in 1920. Marcellin Castaing, an art collector and critic, asked to see Soutine's workshop and handed him a large bill as down payment on a canvas they would pick out later. An angry Soutine, evidently insulted that the collector, out of some kind of charity, would pay for a Soutine before even looking at it, threw the bill back. It was not until 1925 when the Castaings bought Soutine's Standing Choirboy from Zborowski that they met the painter again. With some trepidation, they made an appointment to visit him in his atelier. "We arrived at 6 in the afternoon," Madame Castaing recalled recently, "and talked with him until 2 in the morning." That began a long friendship and association. When Zborowski died in 1932, the Castaings took over his role as chief collector, seller and protector of Soutine.

The likeness of Madame Castaing is not a flattering one. It shows a wealthy, sophisticated woman, her lipsticked mouth twisted in hardness, her eyes brooding. Madame Castaing, now a 94-year-old widow, runs an antique shop on the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Rue Jacob on the Left Bank, and owns, according to the art critic and writer Alfred Werner, "what appears to be the world's finest and most comprehensive private collection of Soutines." Sitting in her living room below Standing Choirboy, the Castaings' first Soutine, Madame Castaing flashed an elfin smile during a recent interview. Her wide-open, glittering eyes accented a prettiness that is absent in the portrait that Soutine painted of her 60 years ago. Yet there was still an uncanny resemblance. "Soutine told me when he painted me," she said, "'Now you will never grow old."'

For most of his life, Soutine could not remain settled, moving from one apartment to another, breaking away from Paris for long stays in the countryside and on the Mediterranean coast. Modigliani introduced him to the French Riviera town of Cagnes, where Renoir had lived during the last years of his life, and to the nearby resort of Vence; Zborowski sent him to the Catalan village of Céret in the Pyrenees foothills where Picasso and fellow Cubists Georges Braque and Juan Gris vacationed. The Castaings later invited Soutine to stay at their chateau near Chartres. He spent a good deal of time in these quiet and beautiful havens of France, and created some of his most turbulent landscapes there. But he would grow restless with the scenery he had chosen. "I want to get away from Cagnes," he wrote Zborowski in 1923, "a landscape that I cannot abide." Yet he returned.

The Houses, the extraordinary landscape of Céret (circa 1918) now in the Orangerie collection, shows how much vibrancy and energy and power could burst from Soutine. No one could spend any time with this painting (right) without feeling the excitement and sweep and pace. The cluster of little homes seems to push relentlessly leftward, the anthropomorphic buildings standing on their hind legs, their roofs reaching upward like the beaks of great birds. Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian May 1979), once wrote that a Soutine landscape reflected "cataclysmic upheaval as if he had a premonition of our world's agony of total war." Windy Day, Auxerre, now in the Phillips Collection, churns with such upheaval. Soutine painted that landscape of the Burgundy region in 1939 while taking refuge from the terrifying anxiety of a France preparing to defend itself against Hitler.

Did he gore Rembrandt's ox?

In some of his most puzzling work, Soutine painted numerous still lifes of sides of beef, plucked chickens, hanging rabbits and dead turkeys. Some commentators believe that he was reaching back to his childhood and memories of the kosher slaughter of animals and poultry in his native Smilovichi. But it is also possible that Soutine was motivated at least as much by a need to explore both death and color. In the paintings of beef the best known is probably Carcass of Beef in Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery - there is no doubt that he was inspired less by the kosher butchers in his boyhood village than by the Rembrandt painting Slaughtered Ox in the Louvre.

In 1925, Soutine rented a spacious workshop on the Rue du St.-Gothard and hung a huge carcass of beef there that he had bought across town at the slaughterhouses of La Villette. His model, Paulette Jourdain, would return to the slaughterhouses every few days to buy blood so that Soutine could freshen the redness of the meat. One day, inspectors from the department of health knocked on the door, intent on carting away the beef. Soutine looked at the men and turned deathly pale. "Be kind," Jourdain pleaded. "You see that he is painting the beef. He has to finish his canvas." The inspectors relented, injected the carcass with an ammonia deodorant, returned the next day to fumigate the workshop, and agreed to let Soutine go on so long as he promised to keep injecting the beef with ammonia.

The recollections of friends of Soutine brim with tales of his troubled relations with women. Mistrustful, shy and lacking confidence, despite the sales of his paintings, Soutine would take on and discard women friends with heedless haste. An affair with a Russian Jewish model produced a daughter, but he refused to support the child. Toward the end of his life, however, Soutine's relationships with women developed some stability. He lived with two women in relatively long love affairs. One affair, almost idyllic, died in the hopelessness of war; the other, more mysterious and driven, endured until his death.

In 1937, he met Gerda Groth, a 27-year-old divorced German Jewish refugee, at the outdoor terrace of the Café du Dôme on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. A friend introduced him to her as "the great painter Soutine," but she had never heard the name before. While she lived with him, she never did find out much about his genius; he refused to let her look at his paintings. "It was Soutine the man who seduced me," she wrote years later. "As for his art, I hardly cared about it." Soutine did not like her name and, when she moved into his apartment at Villa Seurat, he came up with a new one, Mademoiselle Garde.

Soutine surprised friends like Madame Castaing by letting Garde take charge of his life. "Soutine lived in his apartment like an abandoned cat," Garde said. She cleaned the notoriously messy apartment; persuaded him to overcome his fear of the gas heater and take long, hot baths; accompanied him to various doctors for treatment of his worsening stomach ulcers; and supervised his prescribed diet. She found that her lover was a taciturn, inward, frugal man who kept the works of Balzac, Montaigne and various Russian authors in his small library, but no catalogs or monographs about himself. Breaking from his painting, he liked to take her to wrestling matches, neighborhood movies, the flea market and the Louvre. The American writer Henry Miller lived in another apartment in the same building. "Soutine is now quietly living below me, with his new red-haired model, a 'Soutine' in every respect," Miller wrote in a journal in 1939. "He seems tame now, as if trying to recover from the wild life of other days."

When World War II broke out in September 1939, Soutine and Mademoiselle Garde, on the advice of his doctor, were spending the summer in the countryside - the village of Civry in the Burgundy region. They tried to return to Paris, but the mayor of Civry refused to let them: the French government had restricted the movement of aliens. The mayor finally let Soutine go to Paris for medical treatment but refused to let Garde leave, even when Soutine came back armed with a permit. After seven months of futile appeals in Paris, Soutine again returned to Civry, determined to defy the mayor. He and Garde, carrying her suitcases, slipped out of the village in the dead of night. But their happiness lasted no more than a month. In May 1940, with German armies approaching the borders, the French government ordered the roundup of all Germans in France. Garde, taken to an internment camp in the Pyrenees, never saw Soutine again.

"As you know," Soutine wrote a friend after Garde was taken away, "catastrophe is everywhere.... Everything that happens leaves me unhappy.... In order to forget the nightmare, I paint, I draw and I read." An American painter then introduced Soutine to 34-year-old Marie-Berthe Aurenche, the former wife of the Surrealist painter Max Ernst. Marie-Berthe, beautiful and compulsive, took over Soutine's life. "For Soutine," his biographer Pierre Courthion wrote, "Marie-Berthe was a kind of dazzling fairy. She subjugated him, she pampered him."

Hiding Soutine from the Gestapo

The hunt for Jews in Paris had begun. One night in 1941, Marcel Laloe and his wife, the singer Olga Lucher, found their old friend Marie-Berthe at the door of their apartment in Paris. Could they hide a man hunted by the Gestapo? It was the celebrated Soutine. The Laloes agreed and kept Soutine and Marie-Berthe with them for three months. But the concierge of the building eventually became suspicious. Soutine and Marie-Berthe hurried out of Paris in the summer of 1941, headed for the Loire Valley. They settled on a. farm outside the village of Champigny-sur-Vuede, near the town of Chinon, 170 miles southwest of Paris. "Oh, this flat country, these straight trees," Soutine said when he arrived. "I need twisted trees." Despite his aversion to the flat land, Soutine started to paint again, mostly landscapes of Champigny, but his forced stay in the countryside and the humiliation of the yellow star that he had to wear because he was Jewish did not calm his stomach ulcers.

In the summer of 1943, Soutine, weakened by anemia and terrible pain, was rushed to the hospital in Chinon. Courthion writes that Marie-Berthe refused to heed the recommendation of the doctor for an immediate operation there in Chinon. But Marie-Berthe, in an article published nine years later, insisted that the doctor had told them the operation could be performed only in Paris. It has never been clear why, but the ambulance took a circuitous route through Normandy before reaching Paris more than 24 hours later. When Soutine arrived at the clinic, surgeons operated immediately, but it was too late. He died of a perforated ulcer at 6 in the morning on August 9, 1943.

Marie-Berthe arranged for burial in the cemetery at Montparnasse. Among the few who came to the funeral were Pablo Picasso, the playwright Jean Cocteau, the poet Max Jacob and Mademoiselle Garde, recently released from internment and possessing false identity papers. Marie-Berthe later used funds from the sale of paintings left by Soutine to pay for a stone slab on which a large cross was cut. He had never converted to Christianity, but Marie-Berthe thought he might have if he had lived. "We had sometimes talked about the Christian religion," she said, "and I had the impression that Soutine wanted to know it better." Space in the grave was left for Marie-Berthe, and she was buried there after she committed suicide in 1960.

Some admirers, such as Madame Castaing, believe that Soutine has not yet received from critics the place that he deserves in 20th-century art. Yet his place is distinguished. His personality may have puzzled many people, but they accepted his genius. Jacques Lipchitz, unsure whether to like or pity him, could never understand Soutine as a man. But he had no doubt about his art. "He was one of the rare examples in our day," Lipchitz wrote, "of a painter who could make his pigments breathe light. It is something which cannot be learned or acquired. It is a gift of God." Uncle Morris would have been astounded by such praise and more than a little proud of his cousin Soutine.


Chaim Soutine painted landscapes with passionate intensity. His Windy Day, Auxerre was done in 1939. It was just before the Nazis invaded France. Peasants, seeing him at work, said "that really is our land."
Phillips Collection, Washington DC

Happy, for once, at his work, Soutine smiles next to model, a dead rooster, in Paris studio around 1925.
Roger-Viollet, Paris

Modigliani, as close to a friend as Soutine ever had, painted this portrait of him, one of four, in 1917.
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Soutine flattered no one, and was especially hard on this model - himself. He entitled it Grotesque.
Musées de la Ville de Paris

Called a "servant painter," Soutine liked to search out everyday people, such as a clownlike pastry cook.
Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris

Soutine painted a disheveled, sad-eyed room service waiter after a stay at a hotel near Vichy in 1927.
Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris

Stark, gory Carcass of Beef is one of a series of studies; four such works are now hanging in museums.
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

Soutine painted The Houses during a stay in Céret, a small town in the Pyrenees foothills, around 1918. Collector Duncan Phillips once commented on the sensation of "cataclysmic upheaval" in his landscapes.
Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris

Madeleine Castaing was an early friend and collector of Soutine's work. With her is Standing Choirboy.
Pierre Boulat, Cosmos

Blazing color, force and fire inspire the artist's Madeleine Castaing, a 1928 portrait of his associate.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Soutine, Peintre du Déchirant
Pierre Courthion
Edita-Lazarus, 1972

The Devil and Dr. Barnes: Portrait of an American Art Collector
Howard Greenfield
Viking, 1987

Alfred Werner
Abrams, 1985

Isolated and tormented, he once said that he was going to murder his paintings, but fortunately they are still with us. When I graduated from the City College of New York in 1952, my Uncle Morris had a heart-to-heart talk with me. He told me to work hard, get a steady job and not spend the rest of my life struggling in a Paris garret like his cousin Soutine. "Chaim Soutine, the painter?" I asked. "You mean you've heard of him?" replied Uncle Morris. My late Uncle Morris' ignorance might seem inexcusable. By 1952, Soutine's paintings graced the collections of the Phillips Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the Chicago Art Institute and other museums throughout the United States. MOMA and the Cleveland Museum of Art had recently mounted a major retrospective of his work. His reputation had been set in the art world for many years...
Isolated and tormented, he once said that he was going to murder his paintings, but fortunately they are still with us. When I graduated from the City College of New York in 1952, my Uncle Morris had a heart-to-heart talk with me. He told me to work hard, get a steady job and not spend the rest of my life struggling in a Paris garret like his cousin Soutine. "Chaim Soutine, the painter?" I asked. "You mean you've heard of him?" replied Uncle Morris. My late Uncle Morris' ignorance might seem inexcusable. By 1952, Soutine's paintings graced the collections of the Phillips Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the Chicago Art Institute and other museums throughout the United States. MOMA and the Cleveland Museum of Art had recently mounted a major retrospective of his work. His reputation had been set in the art world for many years...
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