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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
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
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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