The Metamorphosis of Chaim Soutine: II. The Carcasses... Read More
In the next chapter of our series, discover how Soutine navigated interwar Parisian society and the complexities of his own artistic identity as a Jewish émigré.
In the summer of 1912, six years after the exoneration of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer wrongly accused of treason, and just two years before the outbreak of the Great War (1914–18) the Jewish immigrant Chaim Soutine arrived in Paris. Carrying with him fifty loaned rubles given to him in Vilna, he eventually settled in one of the studios of “La Ruche” (“The Beehive”) in Montparnasse. Fortunately, many Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jewish artists inhabited this warren of ateliers. One of them, Marc Chagall (1887–1985), described the milieu as follows:
I moved into another studio more in keeping with my means, in “La Ruche” (The Hive). That was the name given to the hundred-odd ateliers surrounded by a small garden, close to the Vaugirard slaughterhouses. These ateliers were occupied by artistic Bohemians from all over the world. While an offended model sobbed in the Russian ateliers, the Italian studios rang with songs and the sound of guitars, the Jewish ones with discussions . . . this is where the Bohemians, Italians and Jews live . . . It’s not far from the slaughterhouse, where skillful toughs savagely slaughter my poor cows (Chagall, 103).
The studio complex offered a space in which artists could live cheaply. Soutine was unable to find a studio initially: the artist relied on squatting and sharing with others. He enrolled in the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in the atelier of Fernand Cormon. Due to his poverty, Soutine eventually quit the course and turned to learn from others — the masters of past time. The Louvre was a symbol of the cultural supremacy of Paris and housed artists from all over the globe. He would choose paintings by his favorite artists, Rembrandt or Chardin, artistic influences he would continue to emulate throughout his career. Élie Faure recalls seeing Soutine, mesmerized by Rembrandt:
I can see him approaching Rembrandt with a kind of reverent apprehension. He stood there for a long time lost in a trance, stamped his foot, and exclaimed: “It’s so beautiful it drives me mad”
The Louvre was also a space for bonding with other artists. His friend, Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), a Livorno-born Sephardic Jew, introduced the young and impressionable Soutine to artists new to him — Goya, Velázquez, Giotto, Botticelli, Tintoretto. Soutine greatly admired his bohemian and educated friend who, unlike Soutine, openly discussed his Jewishness with strangers and was known to impulsively proclaim “I am a Jew” when introducing himself in Montparnasse. Modigliani was already fluent in French on arrival in Paris. Soutine was part of a period of extensive migration to the west in the early part of the last century. In addition to the growing circle of Jewish artists, there was a surge of shtetl Jews leaving the Russian Empire for France as a result of the failed revolution of 1905 (Hyman, 117). With the enlarged Yiddish community in Paris, in 1913, the immigrants requested that the Paris council of cardinals appoint an eastern European cantor at the synagogue of the rue Sainte-Isaure, in the eighteenth arrondissement. The council responded:
The question which arises is the following: must they be given a functionary who will satisfy them as regards the chants and melodies of their country, but who will really not be, we won’t say French, but au courant of our customs or even French language, and therefore not of our mentality. The matter is especially important since in Montmartre it’s a question of molding, of educating . . . this population (Hyman, 127).
The French Jewish community was reluctant to accept the new arrivals, partly due the problem of language. Artists such as Soutine and Marc Chagall arrived in Paris with a linguistic disadvantage. Chagall recalled that in Paris,
“I felt at every step that I was a Jew — people made me feel it! Whenever I had any dealings with the young artists’ group, they hung my pictures (if they consented to hang them at all) in the remotest, darkest corner . . . And I thought: it must be because I am a Jew and have no country of my own” (Chagall, 105).
This aspect of identity would affect Soutine’s artistic output as well as his art historical reputation.
No work by Soutine remains from the earliest years following his arrival. At a tumultuous point in his life, filled with artistic uncertainty, his earliest paintings are dated to 1915–1916. The artist was notorious for attacking his paintings with his knife. From much later in his career, his patron, Madeleine Castaing recounted Soutine’s destructive tendencies:
That evening, in bed, we heard Soutine open the door to his room, go past our door and up the stairs to the attic. My husband rushed out and I followed. “Soutine, stop!” He had a bottle of petrol! “Soutine, it’s a masterpiece! It’s a crime!”(Castaing, 15–18).
During World War I, the Russian artist Marie Vorobëv (Marevna) recalls how, “life became very hard for foreigners, students and artists . . . all privileges were withdrawn for foreign artists as the war dragged on, in order to extend to French families” (Vorobëv, 54). Immigrants seeking refuge in Paris were excluded from the draft, yet the war provided opportunity. By pledging their loyalty to France, it was possible to speed the process of integration as a resident of France. Shtetl-born artists like Simon Mondzain (1887–1979) volunteered for the foreign legion and in the process gained improved residency status. Soutine, who desired to prove himself, volunteered, only to be rejected due to, “stomach ulcers, being subject to fits, and a defective left eye” (Vorobëv, 55). Instead, Soutine enlisted in a work brigade digging trenches, but his poor health did not allow him to continue.
In the early 1920s, Soutine’s aspiration towards assimilation was partially granted. He no longer needed to rely on small stipends from his dealer, after the sale of some fifty paintings to the Philadelphian collector, Dr. Albert Barnes. Following this important sale, throughout the following decade, Soutine painted still-life, inspired by paintings in the Louvre. He also enrolled in French lessons and improved his previously impoverished appearance. His desire to shed his identity as a Yiddish-speaking Jew suddenly appeared possible with fiscal success. After the stock market crash of 1929, Soutine spent summers with his patrons, Madeleine and Marcellin Castaing, a wealthy couple at whose country house in Lèves, Soutine painted from 1930 to 1935.
Nevertheless, in 1925, the critic Fritz Vanderpyl wrote mockingly of Jewish artists in Paris:
When going to visit the galleries of painting in the Louvre, from the bottom to the top and from one end to the other, for as many hours as you want . . . we will not find a single Jewish work, except—if you want—Seated Peasant Woman by C. Pissarro . . . If the names of his parents and his father’s profession were not enough to prove that Rembrandt, the son of a miller near Leyden, was of pure Christian descent . . . Well two years or two and a half years after the war, a friend of mine draws my attention to an article in a small avant-garde magazine in which we saw a young Pole from the Montparnasse district called “the greatest Jewish painter after Rembrandt” (Vanderpyl, 386–396).
Vanderpyl identified Rembrandt as a gentile, but there was more to Rembrandt’s identity than this. Living in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam in 1639, Rembrandt shared more similarities with artists such as Soutine than the critic allowed. When Rembrandt first arrived in the Breestraat in 1626, his Sephardi neighbors were new arrivals to Holland (Nadler, 9). Rembrandt developed relationships with them and in some respects was a part of the Jewish community. Thus in 1655, Rembrandt painted a slaughtered ox. Drained of its blood, the beast appears to have been slaughtered by a kosher butcher; and in the 1920s, Rembrandt’s painting was displayed in the Louvre for Soutine to admire. For Jewish artists, Rembrandt was not simply a gentile, but an artist, one whose work represented aspects of Jewish life which were accorded the highest honor of the Louvre — whether Old Testament scenes or the depiction of a slaughtered cow.
Soutine venerated Rembrandt above all others. In Paris where Soutine remained an outsider, Rembrandt represented an artist whose success flourished on the boundaries of both the gentile and Jewish communities. The Russian artist and friend of Soutine, Marevna, recalls, “Soutine admired Rembrandt not only as supreme master and great humanist, but also because he was absorbed in Jews and their art and depicted many incidents from Jewish life” (Vorobëv, 168). Inspired by the Dutch master, Soutine created variations of the theme in a series of beef carcasses. To explore his composition, Soutine purchased an entire carcass. He installed the beef in his studio and would periodically add fresh blood, to maintain the freshly slaughtered appearance until completion of his work.
In one example Soutine highlights the gaping torso with thick bands of bright red brushstrokes, against a brilliant blue background. Soutine repeated the motif, documenting the carcass in the process of decomposition. His first interpretations are in vivid reds and bright blues; eventually, however, in The Beef, Soutine paints a yellowed animal carcass against a background of more somber blues. Szittya recorded the artist’s reference to the butcher of his childhood: “when I painted the beef carcass it was my cry that I wanted to liberate. I still have not succeeded.” By painting the beef carcass, Soutine attempted to overcome his inner cry of vulnerability by raising himself to a position of power — as both butcher and as the creator, an artist aspiring to the greatness of the past.
Despite the success following the Barnes purchase, Soutine did not resolve the dualities of his identity — his status as an outsider in Paris and his desire to transcend that position. Soutine worked to improve his French and began to dress well, but the artist was unable to discard his origins. Marevna wrote that Soutine, “loved France sincerely as a second country, however Soutine was fully and painfully aware that he was an immigrant and a Jew.” Throughout the entirety of his career, Soutine traveled away from France only a handful of times — on each occasion, to visit Rembrandt’s paintings in the Rijksmuseum. In interwar Paris, the oeuvre of Rembrandt resonated with other Jewish artists experiencing conflictive identities. Chagall, in describing his dual identity as an outsider, wrote in his autobiography:
I would rather think of my parents, of Rembrandt, my mother, Cézanne, my grandfather, my wife. I would have gone to Holland, to the south of Italy, to Provence, and stripping off my clothes, I would have said: “You see my friends, I’ve come back to you. I’m unhappy here. The only thing I want is to paint pictures, and something more.” Neither Imperial Russia nor Soviet Russia needs me. I am a mystery, a stranger to them. I’m certain Rembrandt loves me (Chagall, 170).
Soutine’s later carcasses were devoted to the hare. Similar to the painter’s representations of fowl, Rabbit is depicted floating in the air, its legs tied to an invisible rope, dramatically cutting off the animal’s leg. But the innards are no longer visible as in his first depiction of a carcass: the artist shows the animal as vulnerable in a different manner. The creature is emaciated and barely illuminated by a light source. The body’s forelegs hang limply, covering the muzzle of the animal. The skin is jaundiced, emphasized by brushstrokes of sickly yellow and green; the creature seems to have hung in a necrotic state for several days. These last carcasses are more restrained and no longer as energetically displayed as the obsessively treated fowl, which recall the trauma of Soutine’s childhood experience.
After painting dozens of carcasses in the mid-1920s, in subsequent years Soutine turned more to portraiture and landscape. In 1927, Soutine was accorded his first one-person show in Paris at the Galerie Bing and gained the support of reliable patrons. By the end of the decade, the artist no longer found it necessary to allegorize his internal battle with the tortured process of assimilation. By 1928, in terms of his subject matter, Soutine appears to have resolved one aspect of his creative turmoil.
—Ori Hashmonay, Guest Contributor,
with Stephen Brown, Curator, the Jewish Museum
The present text is an adaptation and revision of parts from Ori Erna Hashmonay, “You for death, me for Chaïm: the carcasses of Chaïm Soutine,” [B.A.] Senior honors thesis, Department of Art, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, April 2, 2018, sponsor, Dr. Daniel Sherman (thesis advisor)
Valérie Bougault, Paris Montparnasse: The Heyday of Modern Art, 1910–1940, Paris: Pierre Terrail, 1997.
Madeleine Castaing, “Memories of Soutine,” in Arts Council of Great Britain, London, Chaim Soutine, 1893–1943, edited by Ernst-Gerhard Güse, exh. cat. 1982.
Marc Chagall, My Life (1965). London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: P. Owen, Humanities Press, 1985.
Paula Hyman, The Jews of Modern France, Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1998.
Steven M Nadler, Rembrandt’s Jews, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Marevna Vorobëv, Life with the painters of la Ruche, Athelhampton, Dorset, U.K.: Constable, 1972.
Fritz Vanderpyl, “Existe-il une peinture juive?” Mercure de France (1925).
The Metamorphosis of Chaim Soutine: II. The Carcasses of Soutine was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.