Chaïm Soutine was born in 1893 in Smilovitchi, little Lithuanian township located at around twenty kilometres away from Minsk, mostly inhabited by very religious Jews. His father was a tailor; he was the next to last of eleven children family. He started drawing at a very young age.
At 13 years old, he secretly draws the portrait of the head rabbi of his township, thereby breaking the ban on drawing the human face. Thrashed by the rabbi’s son, a butcher, he spends a fortnight at the hospital and his family gets 25 roubles of damages from the local court of justice. With this money, Chaïm decides to leave Smilovitchi. He has rarely talked about his childhood in the Shtetl and has always been reluctant to talk about it.
From 1907, he takes drawing classes in Minsk and bonds with Kikoïne. At the same time, he works at a photograph’s and learns how to touch up prints. He enrols in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Vilnius (Lithuania) where he meets Krémegne.
In 1913, in Paris, Soutine and his two friends live at “La Ruche” and spend some time at Fernand Corman’s studio. Without any resources, he will go through ten years of misery, he works as manoeuvre at Renault and as a construction worker at the Grand Palais.
In 1914, his already weak state of health, prevents him from being enrolled in spite of his desire to do so; He moves in the Cité Falguière where he shares the studio of the sculptor Miestchaninoff.
In 1915, thanks to Lipchitz, he meets Modigliani. The two painters build a solid friendship that will hold all their life.
It is in 1916 that Modigliani introduces him for the first time to his art dealer, Léopold Zborowski at the 3 rue Joseph Bara. He becomes his art dealer without finding great success. Zborowski pays for his trips in the South of France: Céret, Cagnes and Vence, where he stay until 1922. It is in Céret, in 1920, that he comes aware of the death of Modigliani. His state of health deteriorates. Now, he feels completely left alone. Thanks to the request of Netter, the first real amator and collector of Soutine, Zborowski enables him to come back to Paris. The artist finds a precious ally in the person of Paulette Jourdain, Zborowski’s assistant, sitter and confidant of Soutine. In Paul Guillaume’s gallery, Barnes notices “the small pastry cook”, buys it immediately and ask for other paintings of the artist. Paul Guillaume then takes him to Zborowski who shows to the his visitor Soutine’s last paintings. These incredible landscapes will seduce Doctor Barnes whose purchases, related by Paul Guillaume in Arts in Paris, will account for Soutine’s first successes. The American collector Albert Coombs Barnes will buy a large part of Soutine’s works in December 1922. Barnes buys the lot for 3000 dollars. Overnight, Soutine discovers glory. In Montparnasse, he becomes a “Hero”. Soutine earns a daily salary of 25 francs from Zborowski and has a car with driver at his disposal. His works are coveted and prices soar. For the first time in his life, he has money. He turns into a dandy, is fond of grey felts with broad ribbons and walks in front of the Dôme and the Rotonde cafés pretending not to know anyone…He wears very elegant shirts with a tie and a scarf made of red silk.
From 1924 on, while Soutine builds his friendship with the CAstaing, met at La Rotonde, he undertakes a large campaign of recuperation and destruction of his landscapes. Finally wealthy, he can now afford to rent a apartment and a studio where he paints his “Ecorchés beefs”, numerous still lives of poultry and portraits of domestics and other house staff members. In company of Paulette Jourdain, he buys a whole quarter of beef payed by Zborowski in a slaughterhouse of La Villette, hangs it and starts painting it. Soon flies proliferate. The neighbours file a complaint because of the smell. When the hygiene services knock at his door, Soutine, terrified, hides. Paulette defends him, explains that the painter is not yet done with his work…
In 1926 and 1927, Soutine stay in the Berry, in a house owned by Zborowski; in the following years, he stays in the country side will take place a the Castaing’s property, near Charters. He paints the portrait of Madeleine (1928) and starts the series of the altar boys.
In June 1927, his first personal show takes place in Paris, at the Bing gallery. Soutine gets into an argument with Zborowski over money issues. The painter has financial problems and settles down in hotel Boulevard Raspail. His stomac-aches worsen and prevents him from working. Thus, from this year on, he is going to become Madeleine and Marcelin Castaing’s protégé. They will provide for him and enable him to keep painting. Yet, he does not overcome his anguish keeps on trying to get hold of his past works in order to destroy them or to paint on top of the pictures.
From 1931 to 1935, he spends part of the summer in Lèves. There, he meets Elie Faure, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Drieu la Rochelle, Blaise Cendrars and Maurice Sachs. After the death of Zborowski, in 1932, the Castaings remain his main source of revenue.
In 1937, he settles down Villa Seura where Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin where living at the time. At the number 18 of Villa Seura, “everything is dirty, miserable, the furniture is covered with dust, cigarette buts are lying all over the floor. Nailed on the wall, some replicas of Rembrandt, Corot, Courbet. His books: Balzac, Russian novels, Montaigne’s Essays. It was a wary man, secret and solitary, and […] as little talkative as possible. Everything was strange to him. When he was working in his studio, he couldn’t bear that somebody would come and disturb him. He would use a great number of paintbrushes and, in the fever of composition, would throw them on the ground one after another”. (Mademoiselle Garde, Mes années avec Soutine).
In 1937, he meets Gerda Michaelis au Dôme. He rebaptises her “Mademoiselle de Garde, Garde because a few days after, she looks after him all night long, while he still suffers from his stomach aches”. At the beginning of the summer of 1939, they leave together for Civry-sur-Serein. This is where Soutine painted “The road that leads to Civry-sur-Serein”, then bordered by tall poplar trees. Soutine painted several pictures of this road.
In early September 1939, the war was declared. Soutine wants to go back to Paris but the mayor of Civry, Mr. Sebillotte lets him know that he is “assigner a residence” with his partner, with interdiction of leaving the city of Civry. He is Jewish. Mademoiselle Garde is German. Before the end of May, Mademoiselle Garde is deported to the camp of Gurs but soon Gurs turns out to be in the “free zone” and all the women who can justify a place of residence are freed. Mademoiselle Garde goes back to Paris. Madeleine Castaing makes her aware that Soutine leaves with Marie-Berthe Aurenche, ex-wife of Max Ernst.
In March 1941, Marie-Berthe and Soutine find shelter at Champigny-sur-Veude. That is where he will spend the last two years of his life. He paints about thirty pictures, among which the portrait of Marie-Berthe that she will “fix” while Soutine is away…That is why he will angrily destroy it with a knife. He entrusts his painting with Fernand Moulin, who rolls them and brings them to Paris where he will sell them all the gallery Louis Carré. In July, Soutine is hospitalised in Chinon. He is horribly in pain. He has to be operated in emergency but Marie-Berthe has him driven to Paris in an ambulance going through Normandy to make sure not to be caught by the French Police. Soutine reaches Paris on August 7. He is operated on but it is already too late. Soutine dies on August 9, 1943 in Paris. Mademoiselle Garde will write in her souvenirs: “We burry him at the cemetery of Montparnasse, on August 11. There are few people. I recognized Picasso and a few others less famous. The coffin was pulled down in a temporary vault…I remember it was a sunny day.”
Nieszawer & Princ
"Artistes juifs de l'Ecole de Paris 1905-1939"
Editons Somogy 2015
tél : 01 77 38 46 51