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Daily Art Moment: Chaïm Soutine

A vertical painting featuring a full-length male figure standing with his hands clasped in front. His left foot is placed in front of the other pointing to the right of the picture. He wears a cap atop a long face with a pointed chin. His ears protrude from either side of his head, bits of black hair poking out by his ears and at his forehead. Large dark eyes look off to the viewer’s left. He wears what appears to be a long-sleeve, high-collared white shirt. When examined more closely, the white shirt as well as his cap and shoes are made up of many colors in addition to white—grays, blues, green, yellows, tan, orange, and dashes of red applied in broad, rough brushstrokes. Similarly, his baggy, brownish pants are painted with strokes of brown, black, yellow, red, orange, and tan. To the left of the figure stands a brown chair with ornate slatted back. Behind the figure is a field of mottled red tones making up most of the width of the painting, suggesting a curtain. A narrow swath of reds, browns, yellows complete the right side of the painting running from top to bottom.

“Let slide the weary art-historical narratives that lock Soutine into categories of style and sequences of influence. Only look.” —Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for “The New Yorker”

“I adore this painting. Full of beautiful contradictions, it seems to stand outside of time while it remains so specific. Chaïm Soutine painted from life, inviting models to his Parisian studio. In the 1920s, he created several portraits of waiters, bellboys, and chefs from Paris’s luxury hotels. This working class cohort was an increasingly visible presence in the booming establishments frequented by fashionable bourgeoisie, and Soutine’s portraits bear witness to the formation of the hospitality service industry as we know it today.

If we go deeper, we see the artist’s virtuosic balancing act. Up close the controlled chaos of his brushstrokes shatters form into colorful abstraction. The pressed white chef’s jacket is a wrinkled riot of primary colors; the man’s hands a fleshy dough ball of red, yellow, grey. Set off from the dominating presence of the red curtain backdrop, the face belies a unique expression, maybe a smirk or a smile captured on this break from the hard work of the kitchen. Art historians consider Soutine a bridging figure from Post-Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism, and he doesn’t quite fit into the standard trajectory of Western modernism. I agree with Schjeldahl: Does that matter, really? Soutine knew the transformative powers of paint.”

Sara Krajewski, The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Chaïm Soutine (Russian, 1893–1943). Le Petit Pâtissier (The Little Pastry Cook), ca. 1921. Oil on canvas. Museum Purchase: Ella M. Hirsch Fund, 40.30 © artist or other rights holder

This painting was loaned to the Courtauld Gallery in London for their 2017 exhibit, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys. Watch a lively video tour led by celebrity maître d’hôtel, Fred Sirieix.