Chaim Soutine: the artist who fell foul of the hygiene police

Why authorities in Paris had a beef with the Jewish painter

By Julia Weiner, October 19, 2012
Chaim Soutine, posing with a dead chicken. He was known for his paintings of animal carcasses

Chaim Soutine, posing with a dead chicken. He was known for his paintings of animal carcasses

You have almost certainly heard of Marc Chagall, and Modigliani may be a familiar name. But what about Chaim Soutine?

With the Ben Uri Gallery in London currently displaying a newly acquired Soutine painting, it is time to discover more about an artist, who, like his great friend Chagall, made his way from his home in Russia in the early years of the 20th century to study and work in Paris.

Soutine was born in 1893 in the shtetl of Smilovitchi, in Belarus, the 10th of 11 children of a poor clothes-mender. His early interest in art was not encouraged — it was considered idolatrous among the shtetl’s Orthodox Jews.

Ironically, his art education began after he was beaten up by the son of the rabbi for “insulting” a rabbi by asking to paint his portrait. Soutine’s mother demanded compensation, which paid for his first lessons.

He studied first in Vilna and went to Paris where he took classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and regularly visited the Louvre. There he was inspired by the works of the Old Masters.

Fellow Jewish artist Chana Orloff recalled: “I can still see him gazing at the canvases of Rembrandt with respectful awe. He would contemplate them for a long time, go into a trance, then suddenly stamp his foot and explain ‘This is so beautiful it drives me mad’.”

For years, Soutine had very little money but that all changed in January 1923 when his work was discovered by the American art collector Dr Albert Barnes. Barnes’s patronage brought the artist fame and financial security but, at about the same time, he became dissatisfied with his early works and destroyed a lot of them.

His paintings include landscapes, portraits and still lifes, his best known works being a series of paintings of a carcass of beef, inspired by a painting by Rembrandt. He bought the meat at a Parisian abattoir and brought it home to his studio. Flies soon started swarming, the neighbours complained about the smell and the hygiene department was called in. Officials suggested he should use formaldehyde to preserve the meat in future.

Soutine's The Waiting Maid is on show at the Ben Uri Gallery

Soutine's The Waiting Maid is on show at the Ben Uri Gallery

The Ben Uri painting, La Soubrette (The Waiting Maid), is one of a number by Soutine of servants in uniform. Expert Esti Dunow says the work displays “a kind of lethargy and resignation that is touched with sadness”. The painting has been dated to 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power.

Soutine stayed in France when war broke out in 1939. He lived in hiding near Tours but his perilous situation aggravated a long-standing ulcer condition. In 1943 he tried to get back to Paris to see a doctor but died shortly after reaching the capital.

Despite the fact that Soutine never painted a Jewish subject, his work was seen as very Jewish in style. Art historian Avram Kampf says: “He created an art which was filled with nervousness, anxiety and fear. His work was believed to mirror the situation in which all European Jewry found themselves in the period between the wars. It was later seen to prefigure the Holocaust.”

‘Chaim Soutine, The Unveiling of a Masterpiece’ is at the Ben Uri Gallery, London NW8 until October 28.

Last updated: 10:45am, October 19 2012