Impressionist & Modern Art

The Refined Portraits of Chaïm Soutine

By Ori Hashmonay
Chaïm Soutine's La Femme en rouge, 1923-24, from The Bakwin Collection, is a highlight of the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (14 May 2019, New York).

L a Femme en rouge emanates an air of elegance, perceivable in the anonymous subject’s arresting gaze. The painting's formal qualities illuminate the so-called peintre maudit's stylistic tendencies – the artist’s long-favored use of red comes fully into bloom upon the canvas, as the skillfully rendered folds radiate brilliant tonalities.

Chaïm Soutine, LA FEMME EN ROUGE, c. 1923-34. Estimate $6,000,000–8,000,000.

In a review of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Soutine (1950-51), curated by the illustrious Monroe Wheeler, the renowned American art critic Clement Greenberg lauded the singular portrait, La Femme en rouge, writing:

“The only one to which I would give my full assent.”
Clement Greenberg, “Art Chronicle: Chaim Soutine” in Partisan Review, vol. 18, no. 1, New York, 1951, p. 85.

The painting was composed during one of the artist’s fruitful sojourns in Cagnes-sur-Mer (from 1922-1925); the refined piece is directly reflective of the pacifying effect that France’s southern landscapes had on the artist, as these brief respites allowed the émigré artist to disconnect from the rising political tensions in interwar Paris.

Chaïm Soutine, La Femme en rouge, oil on canvas, circa 1923-24, photographed at The Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 1950.

During World War I, the mass loss of workers triggered the French government to expedite industrial growth by implementing the Service de la main-d’oeuvre étrangère in 1917. As a result, Eastern European Jewish immigrants seeking religious tolerance flocked to Paris for work. In 1912, merely two years before the outbreak of World War I, Soutine arrived in Paris. An Eastern European Jewish artist, Soutine witnessed the changing demographics of post-war Paris and the nefarious shift of critics’ ideologies regarding foreign artists. Soutine was painfully aware of his outsider status – and he yearned for rapid assimilation.

In the early 1920s, Soutine’s aspirations were partially granted. He no longer needed to rely on small stipends from his dealer, Léopold Zborowski, as he sold a sizeable amount of his oeuvre to the American scientist and art patron Albert Barnes (of the Barnes Foundation). After his success, between 1922 to 1926, Soutine began to create artworks influenced by paintings housed in the Louvre.

Chaïm Soutine, Still Life with Rayfish, oil on canvas, circa 1924, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Soutine looked to masters Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Rembrandt van Rijn in the subsequent production of his visceral paintings. Created around the same year as Femme en rouge, Soutine's Still Life with Rayfish captures a range of red hues; the entrails of the ray fuse with the fruits below, recalling the alluring woman's dress, lips and cheeks.

It was Soutine's fervor that attracted his supporters: Modigliani, writer Francis Carco and dealer Léopold Zborowski. A documentarian of the Bohemian lifestyle, Carco frequented the local haunts and studios of artists, penning vignettes which featured Modigliani, Soutine, Picasso, and their confrères. Detailing his first encounter with the artist, Carco described Soutine as an "uncultivated" individual:

“Who that evening, brought in the canvas which he smeared upon that day, sat himself in a corner and begged Modigliani to recite some verses…His painting, which unsettled vendors and connoisseurs, accumulated in all the rooms. We'd take a painting, look at it, and place it back against the wall.”
F. Carco, L’Ami des peintres, Paris, 1944, p. 44.

Similar to Carco's retelling, Femme en rouge was presumably acquired by Carco shortly after its completion circa 1924, later to be sold to Zborowski. Although Soutine would continue to paint portraits until his untimely death in 1943, the works from Cagnes remain the most resoundingly lyrical of the artist's career.

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