The present painting is the culminating image in a sequence of six portraits of young pastry chefs that represents one of the best-known and most compelling achievements of Soutine's career. Soutine painted the first of the pastry chefs shortly after his arrival at Céret in 1919, when he was still a largely unknown painter, desperately poor and fraught with anxiety. By the time he painted the present canvas around 1927, bringing this seminal series to fruition, he had achieved nothing short of international fame. What had happened in the interim to change Soutine's fortunes so dramatically was the discovery of the artist by the wealthy and eccentric Dr. Albert C. Barnes; a now-legendary story in which the little pastry chef plays a starring role. The dealer Paul Guillaume published the details of the episode in Arts à Paris in January 1923, announcing the arrival of a great new artist on the Paris scene: "One day I had gone to a painter's studio to see a Modigliani, and I noticed in the corner a work that interested me right away. It was a Soutine, a picture of a pastry cook--an extraordinary, fascinating, real, and truculent pastry cook, afflicted with an immense and magnificent ear, surprising and just right: a masterpiece. I bought it. Dr. Barnes saw it at my place. 'It's a peach!' he cried. The spontaneous pleasure he derived from this canvas changed Soutine's fortune all at once, transforming him overnight into a recognized painter, sought after by patrons, no longer the object of condescension--a hero in Montparnasse" (quoted in Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation, New York, 1995, p. 216).
The six pastry chef portraits were painted over a period of nearly a decade: the first two (including the one that Barnes purchased) at Céret between 1919 and 1921, another three at Cagnes in 1923-1925, and the present canvas around 1927, after Soutine's return to Paris (Tuchman, Dunow, and Perls, nos. 27, 50, 61-62, 75; figs. 1-4 and Portland Art Museum, Oregon). They represent six different anonymous sitters, each with his own distinctive physiognomy and demeanor. In the Barnes portrait, for example, the young chef has a slightly surly air, his lips pursed as he sizes up the viewer; at the same time, his over-sized ears and ill-fitting jacket lend a note of pathos to the portrayal (fig. 1). Le pâtissier de Cagnes, by contrast, is unerringly sympathetic, the sitter's ruddy, pointed face hauntingly sad and searching, the weight of his hat almost too much for his fragile frame (fig. 2). Painted around the same time, the portrait in the Orangerie shows a more mature chef, a man now rather than a boy, his half-open mouth, dislocated nose, bushy brows, and assertive posture giving him a subtly brutish quality (fig. 3).
In the present painting, finally, Soutine gives us a figure of the utmost melancholy. The youngest-looking of all the pastry chefs, he has a face that verges on prettiness in spite of the blunt handling: the lips are full, the cheeks flushed, and the contours smooth. He adopts a posture of mock confidence, his ruddy hands planted on his narrow hips, one bony shoulder raised in a slight shrug; his mouth turned down, brooding and petulant. His eyes, however, are beseeching, and he turns his head almost imperceptibly away from the viewer, reluctant to meet another's gaze. Monroe Wheeler has written about this group of paintings, "These are speaking likenesses of more or less humble persons whom Soutine invested with the poise of royalty, or of those who think themselves royal. Who can tell what he thought of them? Surely he was enthralled by their idiosyncrasy. He selects the salient features of these persons, their intensive gaze, outstanding ears, huge interworking hands, and renders them to excess with only summary indication of the body, which he then cloaks in the magnificences of the palette. They are unforgettable" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1950, p. 65).
What unifies the various portraits in the sequence is the chef's whites (jacket, pants, and apron) that all six sitters wear. In the two paintings from Céret, the white uniform is vigorously streaked with vibrant color, integrating it into the active, brightly hued background (fig. 1; Tuchman, Dunow, and Perls, no. 50). As the sequence progresses, these color accents become more subtle--thin veins of red, blue, green, and gold that run through the luminous white--and the surrounding interior becomes darker and more minimal in turn. This process culminates in the present canvas, where the large, self-contained white field of the young chef's costume dominates the composition, standing out as though spotlit against the austere, inky ground. "This is a masterpiece in the field of investigation of colored matter," Michel Hoog has written (op. cit., p. 266), while Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow proclaim, "The pastry cook paintings demonstrate Soutine's virtuoso ability to extract amazing color from his whites" (op. cit., 1993, p. 511). At Cagnes, Soutine explored this same process of color concentration in his portraits of anonymous female sitters, painting them in bright red dresses or white bridal finery, working his way from one dominant hue to the next (fig. 5; compare as well Christie's, New York, 4 May 2010, lot 68). By the time he returned to Paris in 1925, the single-color palette had become one of Soutine's hallmarks, allowing him to indulge his prodigious gifts as a colorist without restraint.
The pastry chef paintings also represent Soutine's earliest explorations of the figure in uniform, a theme that would come to preoccupy him from 1925 to 1929. Back in Paris after his years in Cagnes, he finally enjoyed the means to frequent the same restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs as the most fashionable Parisians. But rather than depicting the elite clientele of these establishments, reveling in the nightlife of the roaring twenties, Soutine--who himself had known the bitter taste of poverty for far too long--opted to immortalize the humble employees who served them: valets, bell-hops, waiters, and the present pastry chef, all clad in their characteristic uniforms. "What a boon for Soutine that the servant class in France should have kept so many archaic styles of garment, fancy dress without frivolity," Wheeler has written (exh. cat., op. cit., p. 73). The appeal of these uniforms was not limited to the possibilities that they opened up for color concentration, providing ready-made surfaces of a single hue, most often white, red, or dark blue (figs. 6-7; see also the choir-boy portraits from the same period: fig. 8). The uniform also had the effect of de-individualizing the sitter, categorizing him in terms of his occupation and social status. The challenge for Soutine, therefore, was to capture the individual behind the type; the fact that the sitters are cloaked in these anonymous and collective costumes only underscores their individuality by contrast. Tuchman and Dunow have explained:
"While Soutine's portraits do convey inner realities and make spiritual statements, they are primarily rooted in concrete perception. Though Soutine may project his inner turbulence and most personal feelings onto his subjects, the viewer never loses sight of a particular physical entity being carefully observed and experienced. Even the distortions and exaggerations of facial features and the shiftings and dislocations of body parts do not destroy the essential recognition in each painting of a certain person and a reality specific to him or her" (op. cit., 1993, p. 509).
The anonymity of Soutine's uniformed sitters also served an essential function for the artist, affording him some degree of objectivity and emotional distance. Due to the intensity of the relationship that the artist felt in the presence of his portrait subjects, he rarely painted his friends, or indeed himself, opting instead for models whom he did not know. With his friends, the sensations were simply too great, the image too distorted. Moreover, Soutine repeatedly (if not obsessively) employed a very narrow range of compositional schemes for his portraits, giving his sitters an intentionally "posed" look that demonstrates his resistance to a complete union between artist and model. With few exceptions, he depicted single figures, seated or less often standing, either half- or three-quarter-length. Their poses are self-contained, their hands usually resting in the lap or placed on the hips, and they face forwards, commanding the viewer's attention but seemingly unmoved by the presence of the artist. Tuchman and Dunow have written, "With the live model staring back at him throughout the painting session, Soutine may have felt it necessary to defuse their scrutiny of him, or what he felt to be such, by painting them as indifferent to him. It is the tension between their seeming detachment, on the one hand, and an awareness of Soutine's personal involvement with them, on the other, that heightens the expressive charge of these figures" (ibid., p. 510).
Complicating this tension still further is the intentional obliteration in many of Soutine's portraits of any physical distance between sitter and artist, sitter and viewer. The earlier pastry chefs are shown seated in an armchair within a broadly brushed, indistinct interior, generating an impression of pictorial space, however shallow. The present pâtissier, by contrast, stands against a bare backdrop, pressing against the surface of the picture, invading our own space. Centered within the pictorial field, he occupies nearly the full width of the canvas from edge to edge, the bright white of his uniform seeming to burst forth from the steely, gray ground. Andrew Forge has written, "There is a terrible poignancy in Soutine's closeness to the things he paints. He seems to cling to them, to bury himself in them. Everything that he paints is like a close-up, not only because he eliminates the space that separates him from the object but because of the extreme plasticity of the image that he makes of it" (Soutine, London, 1965, pp. 30-31). The unrestrained painterliness of Soutine's work only intensifies this sense of proximity. He applied pigment in feverish, expressionistic strokes that give his paintings a powerfully tactile quality. Tuchman and Dunow have explained, "His canvases rivet the viewer with their convincing physical presence and their kinetically charged substance, which embody the fervid inner need that compelled the artist to paint them. Soutine's intense observation of the visual world, and his impassioned identification with it, all set in motion by peculiar intensity and obsessiveness, enabled him to attain a state of expressionistic exaltation that was exceptional and unprecedented in his day" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 9).
During the same years that Soutine focused on painting portraits of figures in uniform, he was also captivated by dead animals (fish, fowl, rabbits, and great beef carcasses) as a subject for still-life, and there are illuminating parallels between the two groups of paintings. In both, the subject is presented to the viewer for scrutiny, isolated and centralized; the broad passages of white and red, inflected with a rich variety of tones and accents, recur as well in both the portraits and the still-lifes, producing a powerful identification between flesh and pigment. Tuchman and Dunow have concluded, "The stroking, texturing, and streaking with other colors and lights and darks gives Soutine's reds, whites, and blues a certain organic quality suggestive of body tissue, veins, and arteries. The uniform merely continues over the surface from where hands and neck leave off and so acts as an extension or analogy to the flesh. Furthermore, both flesh and the uniform are transformed into surface membranes of pigment. As the freshly killed animals reveal their inner organs and meat, so the 'flesh' of the figures acts as an index of the raw nerves and rumblings beneath the skin. Even the searching quality of Soutine's contours accents this autopsy. The way the figures spread over the surface to meet the frame opens them up for inspection. The figures, the meat, the birds are made vulnerable and victims of our visual penetration" (op. cit., 1993, p. 512).
Not long after he painted the present canvas, the style and subject of Soutine's portraits changed considerably. In the late 1920s and 1930s, his palette dimmed noticeably, the nervous heat of his color finally cooling down. Around the same time, his figures began to look increasingly sad and resigned. Their eyes are now veiled or downcast, their faces and gestures quieter and more withdrawn; a sense of timidity and passiveness replaces the animation and anguish that had characterized Soutine's earlier subjects. By the mid-1930s, the uniformed figures of restaurants, nightclubs, and hotels had ceded pride of place in Soutine's iconographic repertoire to domestic servants in bourgeois homes (maids, cleaning girls, house cooks, etc.). Their garments are no longer the pure colors of figures on public display but rather the less assertive shades of simple household clothing, and their representation is devoid of the vibrant, almost manic intensity typical of the best portraits that Soutine painted during the 1920s.
The first owners of the present painting were Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing, Soutine's principal patrons and protectors from the late 1920s until his death (fig. 9). Pillars of the artistic community of Montparnasse and close friends of Picasso, Derain, Léger, and Blaise Cendrars, among others, the Castaings first encountered Soutine in the early 1920s, when he was still desperately poor. On the lookout for new and undiscovered talent, and hoping to help a struggling painter as well, they offered him a hundred francs at a café in Montparnasse as an advance on a painting that they would choose from his studio. He angrily refused the money, offended that they would propose buying a painting that they had never even seen. After that, the Castaings saw nothing of Soutine until 1927, when they encountered him again at his first solo exhibition at Henri Bing's gallery. This second (and much more congenial) meeting marked the start of an enduring friendship, which represents an important chapter in the biography of both Soutine and the Castaings. It was also at this time that the couple began to buy Soutine's work in quantity, eventually building a collection of more than forty of his paintings, including three probing portraits of Madeleine Castaing herself (Tuchman, Dunow, and Perls, nos. 136-138; fig. 10).
Passionate admirers of the artist's oeuvre, the Castaings opened their château near Chartres to Soutine each summer from 1930 to 1935, devoting themselves single-mindedly to supporting him in his work. They searched high and low for old canvases for him to use, helped to convince the local inhabitants to pose, and on occasion restrained him from destroying paintings that had attracted his ire. Billy Klüver and Julie Martin have written, "Soutine was not an easy guest, moody, solitary, demanding, subject to fits of anger, plagued by weeks of being unable to paint, then total absorption in his work. But their commitment to the painter was total" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 108). Late in her life, Madeleine Castaing left a moving recollection of her life-changing relationship with Soutine: "Fate and the gift of intuition enabled me to get to know a great artist: Soutine. An inspired painter, part of a great tradition, he looked instinctively for the inner truth and laid bare the hidden secrets of his model, the essential reality of things... We believed in his genius, he knew that, and our opinion mattered to him and often gave him strength. There were problems of course, but this wonderful adventure has left me with an incomparable sense of pride and emotion. I could go on talking about Soutine forever" ("Memories of Soutine," in Soutine, exh. cat., Galleri Bellman, New York, 1983, p. 6).
Soutine (with Paulette Jourdain and the dog Riquette), 1926.
(fig. 1) Chaim Soutine, Le Pâtissier, circa 1919. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
(fig. 2) Chaim Soutine, Le pâtissier de Cagnes, circa 1922-1923. Sold, Christie's, London, 7 February 2005, lot 30.
(fig. 3) Chaim Soutine, Le pâtissier au mouchoir rouge, circa 1922-1923. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris.
(fig. 4) Chaim Soutine, Le cuisinier de Cagnes, circa 1924. Kunstmuseum Bern.
(fig. 5) Chaim Soutine, La Fiancée, circa 1923. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris.
(fig. 6) Chaim Soutine, Le Groom, circa 1925. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
(fig. 7) Chaim Soutine, Le Maître d'hôtel, circa 1927. Sold, Christie's, London, 1 July 1998, lot 7.
(fig. 8) Chaim Soutine, L'Enfant de chur, circa 1927-1928. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris.
(fig. 9) Soutine and Madeleine Castaing, mid-1930s.
(fig. 10) Chaim Soutine, Portrait de Madeleine Castaing, circa 1929. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.