Monsieur Soutine had a knack for finding good staff. And he certainly liked a man in uniform. Bellboys, waiters, valets, pastry cooks and the occasional maid, would make their way from the grand hotels and restaurants of Paris’s Roaring Twenties onto his fiery canvases. London hasn’t seen a Soutine show for 35 years, but thanks to the Courtauld Gallery you can see 21 of his bold portraits, brought together for the first time into a spectacular exhibition, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys.
Chaim Soutine’s story is one of rags to riches. He was born in 1893 in Belarus where he lived in a Jewish ghetto. In 1913, he left for Paris armed with little more than a pocketful of dreams. Like so many artists before him, he headed straight for Montparnasse and to Studio la Ruche. A destitute Soutine studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. For ten years, he slept on floors. He would forge a deep friendship with Modigliani who painted several Soutine portraits.
In 1919, Soutine left for Céret in the Pyréneées, an artistic mecca for painters like Picasso and Braque. Soutine would have an outpouring of creative energy here, developing the portrait which would go onto bring him fame and fortune: The Pastry Cook. The painting would make its way to Paul Guillaume’s exclusive gallery in Paris where the American art collector Alfred Barnes fell in love with it at first sight. Barnes would purchase 54 Soutine paintings, lifting the painter out of obscurity and destitution. His Soutines, together with a bulging collection of works by Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse, would become the inaugural pieces of the magnificent Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
The painter’s financial woes were over. He would become a hero of the Bohemian avant-garde world, a beacon of inspiration for others who were desperate for success. Thanks to his increased financial security, Soutine could start frequenting grand hotels and restaurants. He wasn’t drawn to the glitz and the glamour of the Roaring Twenties: it was the staff that piqued his interest. The painter would invite a bellboy, a cook, or a waiter back to his studio, painting them from real life without the use of preparatory sketches. He was difficult and demanding, expecting total concentration from his sitters during the intensive sessions.
World War II
Soutine had to flee Paris to avoid arrest from the Gestapo. He would sleep on forest floors, no doubt a reminder of his earlier years in Montparnasse. In 1943, he was smuggled back into Paris for an emergency operation but died on the operating table of a perforated ulcer on the 9 August. Guests at his sparsely-attended funeral in Montparnasse cemetery included Picasso and Cocteau.
The exhibition is a vivid, sometimes shocking sea of crimson reds, vibrant whites and inky blues. The players in Soutine’s portraits are distorted, displaying intensive melancholy and vulnerability. Some would say they are an expression of Soutine’s own sense of isolation.
Soutine lacerated the initial version of Room Service Waiter. He would become frustrated with his sitters because “the model tires quickly and assumes a stupid expression. Then it’s necessary to hurry up and that irritates me…sometimes it gets to the point where I scream, I slash the canvas, and everything goes to hell.”
The blood pulsates throughout the canvas in Butcher Boy. Soutine was familiar with the sight of blood: he loved to paint rotting carcasses which he would keep in his studio, regularly pouring fresh blood on them. You can see how Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were influenced by Soutine when you gaze at the wretched, grotesque Butcher Boy. Willem de Kooning called him his “favourite painter.”
I don’t know about you, but I think this portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain member of the royal family!
Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys. On to 21 January 2018. From £5.00-£10.50 (under 17s go free).
The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN. Nearest tubes: Temple, Embankment
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