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 Chaim Soutine  (1893 - 1943)

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About: Chaim Soutine


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Lived/Active: France/Russian Federation      Known for: expressionist portrait, still-life and landscape painting

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BIOGRAPHY for Chaim Soutine
1893 (Smilavichi, Russia (Belarus))
1943 (Paris, France)

France/Russian Federation

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expressionist portrait, still-life and landscape painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

A Russian Jewish expressionist portrait, still life and landscape painter, Chaim Soutine lived most of his life in France, especially Paris and the district of Montparnasse.  His "work is characterized by its distortions both of space and of subject matter, violence of colour and brush-stroke, making the painting a whirlwind of movement." (Phaidon)

He achieved public recognition during his lifetime, but was plagued with self-doubt about his work, especially color and form, and destroyed the majority of his paintings done between 1920 and 1929.  He was reclusive about exhibitions, but in 1935 had a very successful exhibition in Chicago at the Arts Club.  In 1937, his work was part of the Independent Art exhibit in Paris, and reviews lauded him as a 'great' painter.

Soutine was born in Smilavichi, which is now in Belarus, a country on the western border of Russia.  He was the tenth of eleven children supported by the modest income of the father, a tailor.  He took art lessons as a child in the nearby town of Minsk, and in 1910, tried for admission to the School of Fine Arts in Vilna, but failed the entrance exam on his first try.  After private lessons from one of the School's teachers, he was successful in enrollment.   In 1913, he went to Paris and began study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

Early in his career, he lived in poverty in the Montparnasse district of Paris.  Occupants of nearby studios were Fernand Leger (1881-1955) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985).  One of his good friends was the oft inebriated Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), who compared Soutine's painting . . . "to his own drug-induced hallucinations: 'Everything dances around me, as in a landscape by Soutine.' " (Phaidon).  Modigliani did a portrait of Soutine and also introduced him to friends including the Polish poet, Léopold Zborowski, whose influence among wealthy collectors helped alleviate Soutine's poverty. 

From 1918 to 1922, Soutine traveled frequently outside of Paris and completed over 200 paintings, sixty that were purchased by Philadelphia collector, Albert Barnes.  Subsequently Barnes wrote published articles about the quality of Soutine's paintings, which enhanced the artist's reputation and also brought him more financial stability.

Barnes visited Soutine's Paris studio in 1923.  One of the Barnes collection paintings, The Skinned Rabbit, related to idiosyncratic behavior of Soutine, which included the keeping of rotting animal carcusses in his studio so that he could have realistic models for his carcuss still-life paintings, one of his specialties.  The dead 'skinned' rabbit is described as "eviscerated and bloody, his eye a dwelling place for the last, meager trace of life".  However, the resulting 'fine art' is described in a much more positive way:  "The paint handling is sumptuous---a full range of reds and crimsons spread out in long streaks that follow the contours of the limbs.  The rabbit is displayed on a stained white cloth atop a table." (Hogg)  After 1925, Soutine turned increasingly to carcuss painting.   A related story is about his painting A Carcass of Beef.  Soutine's neighbors called the police because of the stench emanationg from his studio, and upon their arrival they were immediately diverted by a lecture from Soutine about the over-riding importance of excellent art relative to foul smells and personal hygience.

During the late 1930s and into the World War II years, he was on the run from the Nazis and their methodical extermination of Jews.  He refused an opportunity to emigrate to America but left Paris and went into hiding, moving from place to place, often sleeping outdoors.  In 1943, he died from a perforated stomach ulcer, having left a safe hideout in Paris to have surgery, but the procedure failed to save his life.

He is buried in Cimetiére du Montparnasse in Paris.


Michael Hogg, "Chaim Soutine", Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation, (Alfred Knopf, 1993) p. 214

Editors, Phaidon Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art, p. 361.  Credits are to Raymond Cogniat, Soutine, Paris, 1945; Andrew Forge, Soutine, London 1965; D. Sylvester, Chaim Soutine, 1894-1943, catalogue for the Arts Council of London; M. Castaing and J. Leymarie, Soutine, New York, 1964.

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