When Chaïm Soutine, a penniless Jewish painter from the Russian Empire, arrived in Paris in 1913, he discovered a belle époque city glittering with impossible wealth. An outsider who identified with the underdog, Soutine’s eye sympathetically drifted to the underclass beneath this moneyed illusion: the anonymous service staff who floated like ghosts through the kitchens and lobbies of Left Bank hotels.
‘Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys’ at the Courtauld Gallery is the first time in 35 years that the artist’s work has been the subject of a major UK exhibition, and reveals a profoundly compassionate and humane eye.
In The Young Pastry Cook (1927–28), the sitter seems to be drowning in his starched uniform, like a small boy posing in his father’s clothes. His nervously clasped hands and wobbling mouth convey the anxiety of entering the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a hotel kitchen. Even the brushstrokes – fluid, nimble – suggest he could flicker out at any moment: a blue flame in the darkness. The painting’s tight, narrow frame further heightens the boy’s glum containment.
This claustrophobia starkly contrasts with another of Soutine’s favourite subjects: hotel bellboys. These dapper emissaries turned the foyers of Paris’ most ritzy hotels into a kind of deferential ballet. Bellboy (1925) is a study in self-conscious swagger. In his scarlet livery, gleaming gold buttons trailing down to spread legs, this worker puckishly flouts formality. His heavy-lidded stare is almost an exercise in defiance: who will turn away first?
But not all Soutine’s hoteliers share this wily self-assurance. Page Boy at Maxim’s (c.1927) depicts a chasseur at one of the city’s most fashionable eateries. This gaunt-faced man, eyes hollowed into twin eclipses, looks as if he’s served here for centuries – his employers snatching their pound of flesh and leaving the bones. His outstretched palm is almost Christ-like. Is he demanding a tip – or hoping someone will rescue him from this drudgery? Either way, he’s a dyspeptic figure in this world of caviar-guzzling bons vivants.
Soutine returns again and again to the viscid colour scheme of arterial scarlets and bloody carmines; his palette is a butcher’s block. Butcher Boy (c.1919–20) is as lividly pink as freshly served steak tartare. His features are barely discernible amid the violent swirls of colour, suggesting a kind of primitive aggression beneath the professional veneer. For Soutine, meat is definitely murder, and anticipates his famous later paintings of animal carcasses. (He apparently hung the long red curtains used by butchers to keep flies away in his own studio. They can be seen as the backdrop of 1921’s Little Pastry Cook.)
Female staff are boldly brought to life, too. Cook with Blue Apron (c.1930) is a study in dour servitude. The cook, with droopily mournful bassett hound eyes, seems pinned down by her formal attire, her hands humbly crossed. She has echoes of Amedeo Modigliani’s famous models: all long limbs and jolie laide angularity. The same sitter is portrayed in The Chambermaid (c.1930), her mouth as downturned as a bed sheet. Soutine is adept at transforming dreary domesticity into expressionistic agony.
He was also fond of painting the same sitter repeatedly: excavating deeper beyond the surface each time, catching further shades of his subjects’ inner lives. Room Service Waiter (1928) exemplifies the infamous hauteur of Parisian waiters. Hands imperiously on hips, scowling, the waiter is distorted and pulled askew, with his crooked schnoz and jug ears. You can almost feel the steam coming off him, mirroring Soutine’s own volatility. (Under the paint, the canvas bears slash marks from one of his knife-wielding piques.)
Manipulating his subjects to reveal their character, Soutine lends them dignity – and redeems the richness of these otherwise forgotten lives.
Chaïm Soutine, Pastry Cook of Cagnes (detail), 1922, oil on canvas, 65 x 50 cm. Courtesy: Private Collection