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Chaim Soutine Paintings of a Troubled Soul

Chaim Soutine paintings are extremely expressive of his inner turmoil and volatile moods. He tended to use strong, bold colors, while distorting his subjects. His paintings often portrayed elements from his Jewish heritage, combining with Cubism & Fauvism styles.

Portrait of a man - Chaim Soutine art
Chaim Soutine Painting

Early years in the Jewish Ghetto in Russia

Chaim Soutine was born into a poor, orthodox Jewish family in a small village near Minsk, Russia (today part of Belarus). He was the 10th of 11 children. Soutine’s interest in art & drawing started at a young age. However, this interest was frowned upon by his Orthodox Jewish community. Apparently young Soutine was once severely punished after working on a portrait of the local rabbi.

Soutine also grew up in a time when life was particularly difficult for Jews. Violence against the Jews was common in this region. In fact, during Soutine’s childhood, thousands of Jews were killed in pogroms. These hardships from his childhood years, continued to torment him throughout his life and often he expressed his anguish in his later paintings.

Chaim Soutine Self Portrait
Chaim Soutine Self Portrait [Public Domain]

Soutine Rebels Against Family Expectations & Moves to Paris to Pursue Art

Soutine wanted to pursue art and knew that in order to do so, he needed to leave the confining Jewish community. He enrolled into an art school in Vilnius. At the age of 20, he then moved to the vibrant art scene of Paris to further his art studies.

Soutine’s Friendship with Modigliani

Soutine, the young adult, relished in the unrestrained freedom of his new life in France. He quickly adapted & lived as an avant-garde Parisian. He spent his evenings getting drunk in bars with other artists until the wee hours of the night. His days were spent recovering from hangovers and then frantically painting in his studio.

His closest friend, fellow artist, flat-mate and mentor was also a Jewish emigre from Italy, Amedio Modigliani. Together they lived, shared artistic ideas, models and even worked with the same art dealer. Soutine was also close friends with the Jewish Russian-Belarus painter Marc Chagall.

Chaim Soutine’s paintings in these early years focused predominantly on still lifes. Soutine experimented with texture and shape, pursuing new ideas on how to portray everyday objects. Often, he painted with thickened paint, adding a sculptural dimension to his canvases.

Fish, Peppers, Onions - Chaim Soutine Painting
Fish, Peppers, Onions – Chaim Soutine Painting [Public Domain]

Chaim Soutine – Paintings of Inner Turmoil

As an individual, Soutine was emotionally volatile. He often felt depressed and even suicidal at times. During rages, he destroyed his paintings or vented his anger onto his friends. Many believe that his emotional instability was due to his difficult childhood years in Russia, living in poverty & witnessing friends and relatives killed in pogroms. 

Soutine’s paintings often portray his inner anguish. Many canvases depict turbulent landscapes with twisted trees & crooked houses. His style is named expressionism. Soutine is considered an expressionist painter as he tended to portray the world through his subjective view point, distorting the subject matter to convey his emotions.

Ceret Landscape - Chaim Soutine painting
Ceret Landscape – Chaim Soutine [Public Domain]
The Houses - Chaim Soutine paintings [Public Domain]
The Houses – Chaim Soutine art [Public Domain]

Success & Acknowledgement After Years of Poverty

For nearly a decade Soutine lived as a poor, frustrated artist in Paris. He worked hard in getting commissions here and there. However, his final breakthrough came in 1923 when an American art collector, Albert Barnes noticed one of Soutine’s portraits of a pastry chef. Barnes demanded to meet the artist and see more of his paintings. He loved what he saw and bought over 50 of his paintings.

This was a turning point for Soutine. His success continued when decorator and designer Madeleine Castaing & her husband, become his patrons. They enabled him to exhibit his first artistic show in Chicago in 1935.

The Pastry Chef / Le_Petit_Pâtissier - Soutine painting
The Pastry Chef / Le_Petit_Pâtissier – Soutine painting

Soutine’s Terrifying Still Life Paintings

Still life paintings traditionally tended to evoke calmness and be pleasing to the eye. However, many of Soutine’s still life paintings have an opposite effect.

Between the years 1925 to 1929 Soutine began painting animal carcasses, hanging poultry & fish. It is said that he kept beef carcasses in his studio for weeks so that he could paint them. The stench drove the neighbors crazy. He painted more than 10 paintings of beef carcasses & decades later these paintings becoming iconic.

These are prevoking works of art seem indeed to cry out to us in a primal & visceral language. Is Soutine using the flesh of the bloodied carcass to remind us of the suffering, persecution & senseless death in human history?

The Chilling Foreboding of Soutine’s Paintings

Ironically, when he painted these paintings evoking a tragic vision of the world, Jewish Soutine had no idea that in the years to come, Europe would become under Nazi occupation one of the darkest and most evil places in human history.

arcass of Beef - Chaim Soutine Painting [Public Domain]
Carcass of Beef – Chaim Soutine Painting [Public Domain]

WW2 & the Immergence (again) of Antisemitism

When the Nazi’s invaded Paris in the summer of 1940, Soutine fled his apartment in order to escape the Gestapo. The next few years were a living nightmare for Soutine. He was on the run, moving from safe house to safe house using forged passports and documents.  The constant emotional strain and fear exacerbated Soutine’s ulcers. He died of a perforated ulcer on August 9, 1943, at the young age of 50 years old.

He is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

Where to View Chaim Soutine Paintings in France:

Today, Chaim Soutine’s artworks are hung on the walls of major art museums around the world.

In Paris, you can see his paintings in the following art museums:

Other museums in France with a good collection of Soutine paintings are:

  • Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, France  
  • Céret Museum of Modern Art, France 
View of Cagnes - Chaim Soutine painting [Public Domain]
View of Cagnes – Chaim Soutine painting [Public Domain]