Soutine’s subject in this well-known, often exhibited and widely illustrated painting, a French girl seven or eight years of age attired for her First Communion, is unique in his oeuvre, and stands out among the notable portraits the artist painted following the momentous achievement of his Céret period. Indeed, he completed this painting about a year after another career-altering event, the American collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes’s discovery of his work, resulting in miraculously sudden fame and success of a magnitude of which most artists can only dream. Shifting his focus from the landscape to portraiture marked the next phase of evolution in Soutine’s painting, in which he took in hand new subjects and influences that further bolstered his burgeoning reputation. He featured during this phase everyday working people dressed for their work in livery particular to their station. La Communiante, however, while outwardly corollary to this theme, depicts an ordinary young girl as she is about to experience a rite of passage steeped in sacred, ritualistic tradition, far removed from the prosaic occupations the artist featured in his paintings of pastry chefs, waiters and hoteliers.
The paintings of the early and mid-1920s are telling evidence of how extraordinary a journey Soutine had taken, from what should have been a mean existence of desperate poverty and obscurity in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Lithuania, to the front rank of accomplishment and fame as an important modern painter in Paris. For Soutine, Paris–when he arrived in 1913–must have seemed an extraordinary, incomprehensible place. Ill-prepared for life in a modern cosmopolitan capital, he hung on the edges of society, desperately seeking his place–to this end, art was his only hope. “Soutine’s poverty in those first years in Paris was almost insupportable,” Maurice Tuchman has written. “It was a kind of gnawing, continual want that can break one’s will to work or live” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1968, p. 17). It was not until 1918 that he could broaden his horizons, when he experienced the novelty of his first-ever holiday, a trip to Nice and Cagnes with Modigliani, Foujita and their dealer Léopold Zborowski, who paid their way, allowing Soutine his first view of the sea, a chance to sunbathe and to learn how to swim.
Soutine returned to the South late the following year, again at Zborowski’s expense, in the foothills of the Pyrenees for an extended sojourn in Céret, the town which Picasso had made “the Mecca of Cubism.” Having little contact with other painters there and unable to understand the local Catalan dialect, Soutine worked in Céret until 1922 largely in isolation, with occasional trips to Cagnes and Paris. He painted more than two hundred canvases, mostly landscapes–“a body of work unique in modern times,” Tuchman has declared, “ecstatic for their convulsiveness and evocation of exhilarant sensation” (cat. rais., op. cit., 1993, p. 19). He never returned to Céret. He grew to dislike the wildness he had painted into these landscapes; for this reason, and perhaps because of the memories this difficult solitary experience still held for him, he would destroy any Céret pictures to which he later had access.
It is fortunate that Dr. Barnes learned about Soutine when he did. Having seen one of the artist’s now famous pastry chefs at Paul Guillaume’s gallery, he purchased in 1923 more than fifty paintings out of the artist’s studio, thus saving many of the magnificent Céret works for posterity. Those he later resold served to further disseminate and enhance the artist’s reputation. From this time onward, Soutine was free from financial want. His pocket brimming with francs, newly attired in suits from Dr. Barnes’s Paris tailor, Soutine could take his meals at the celebrated Parisian restaurant Maxim’s. This inspired three paintings of a page boy who worked there around 1925, smartly decked out in his red cap and uniform (Tuchman, Dunow and Perls, nos. 88-90).
Soutine now alternated his time between Paris and Cagnes. Whereas the formal professional attire worn by the restaurant and hotel personnel in his paintings usually denotes cosmopolitan Paris, the rustic traits seen in the artist’s portraits of boys and girls, young men and women point to Cagnes and the Midi as their venue. David Sylvester detected in La Communiante a “Cagnes-like expression on the face” (somewhat bemused, unlike the more seriously countenanced Parisian page boys) in “this exquisitely ethereal masterpiece of the white series” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1963, p. 23). Other Cagnes “white” paintings include the cooks Soutine painted during 1922-1924 (Tuchman, Dunow and Perls, vol. II, nos. 61, 62 and 75).
La Communiante, in Soutine’s handling of her veil and dress, is indeed a veritable study in white–translucent folds of silken lace tinted in pale tones of blue, green, pink, mauve and yellow. The last color describes the sash the communicant wears around her waist, at the center of the composition, from which hangs the traditional alms purse worn by girls during the procession, ceremony and ensuing festivities. Soutine’s fascination here with white, associated in part with the ideal of youthful innocence and purity, may further stem from his growing interest in the work of Courbet and Corot, naturalist painters who often contrasted white and pale tones–in flesh tints, clothing, and even the sky itself–against dark grounds. This was a classic technique of the old masters, among whom Soutine came to admire the rich painterly textures and dignified themes in Rembrandt most of all.
The subject of a Christian communicant may appear to have been an unusual interest for a Jewish painter born and raised in the Pale of Settlement, who later spoke French with a Yiddish accent, moreover one who “never painted an identifiably ‘Jewish’ subject,” as Kenneth E. Silver has reminded us. Unlike the work of Chagall, in Soutine's oeuvre “there are no scenes of life in the shtetl, no rabbis, no synagogues, no Sabbath candles, no Jewish folktales...” However, “his interest in Christian subjects–not Christian themes, but visible signs of Christianity in French culture–is unmistakable.” Soutine had depicted elderly men praying at Céret, circa 1921 (Tuchman, Dunow and Perls, vol. II, nos. 42-46), and following La Communiante, there are four paintings done between 1925 and 1928 that portray choir boys in their white and red gowns (vol. II, nos. 86 and 92-94). “In part, it may be that ‘ordinary,’ day-in and day-out Catholic life looked as exotic to Soutine as he himself looked to the French,” Silver has explained. “These pictures of Christian people were pictures of France, like his landscapes, his portraits of peasants, bellhops and cooks. France: the place that had welcomed Soutine as a young artist, whose critics had lavished attention on him, whose art dealers and collectors had sought him out and made him financially secure” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, pp. 35 and 36).
There are paintings of first communion subjects which other modern artists depicted around the same time–simply by way of coincidence, it appears–when Soutine painted his. Recalling one of his earliest pictures, La primera comunió, 1895-1896 (Zervos, vol. 12, no. 49), in 1919 Picasso painted a pair of pictures, one in his late synthetic cubist mode, and the other in a neo-classical manner, based on a photograph showing two first communicants, a boy and a girl (Zervos, vol. 3, no. 286; and Musée Picasso, no. 1990-6, respectively). Balthus in 1925 painted three pictures showing premières communiantes (Monnier and Clair, nos. P12-14). Lempicka featured her daughter Kizette as La Communiante, 1928, which won a medal at the 1929 International Exhibition of Poznan, Poland (Blondel, B 102).
Soutine has presented the young girl in La Communiante seated and close to the picture plane. Her complete figure fills the canvas, unlike most other portraits in Soutine’s oeuvre, which are half or three-quarter length. We observe here a crucial element in Soutine’s engagement with his portrait subject–he has intentionally eliminated any distance between sitter and artist, sitter and viewer. “He never seems to have painted anything as something removed from himself, at a distance. Everything he paints becomes part of himself,” Andrew Forge has written. “There is a terrible poignancy in Soutine’s closeness to the things he paints, his identification with them. He seems to cling to them, to bury himself in them” (Soutine, London, 1965, pp. 28 and 30-31).
There is no foreground in La Communiante; Soutine has compressed the depth of his seated sitter within the white flatness of her veil and dress. The wall behind her likewise delimits a flat, shallow space, which suggested to Soutine the opportunity, unseen elsewhere in his work, to elaborate this surface with ornamental detail, describing a traditional wallpaper pattern. This intimiste interior effect, more characteristic of Matisse, Bonnard and Vuillard, complements the sumptuous textures of the girl’s communion dress, while suggesting her modest, petty bourgeois background. Soutine’s sincerely considered working of this theme has transformed a scene that might typically have been the subject of a banal, if charming, commemorative studio photograph (as Picasso had used when painting his communicants) into a kind of domestic icon, a poignant and respectful tribute to religious devotion drawn from ordinary family life.
The fervor of Soutine’s brushwork intensifies the ritual significance of his subject. The cascading folds and overlays of fabric inspired the artist to apply his oils in expressionist twists and turns; like a latter-day action painter he swirled, scrubbed and washed his fluid pigments down and across the canvas, leaving drips in various places. “You have the feeling that Soutine is inventing painting while you look on,” Forge declared (ibid., p. 33). Soutine’s decision to limit himself to a single prevailing tonality in La Communiante paradoxically inspired him to indulge his prodigious gifts as a colorist, by challenging himself, as it were, to parse this large white expanse and counter its flatness with a virtual spectrum of subtle, bleached hues.
“Strange as it seemed, Soutine dreamed of art as a craft,” Waldemar George, who knew the painter throughout his life in France, recalled. “He never spoke of a work’s soul nor its lyric content, nor of the intention behind it” (quoted in ibid., p. 32). The usual criteria by which one normally assesses the life and work of a great artist come up short or seem simply irrelevant when applied to Soutine. “His works defy words,” Forge has written, “...they defy discussion... Again and again we are left with sensations and paint, and sensations-in-paint. He is like a man painting out of darkness, filling his dark world with things and people... His best pictures are unquestionable, like the things they are of” (ibid., p. 32 and 33).
The long-time owner of Soutine’s La Communiante during the post-war period was Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973), the popular and much admired actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who starred in 101 films between 1916 and 1973. He is best-known for his roles in Little Caesar (1931) and Key Largo (1948). Robinson was a connoisseur and collector of modern art; major works from his collection, including the present painting, were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in 1953, and in Los Angeles at the County Museum and San Francisco Legion of Honor during 1956 and 1957.
Soutine, with Paulette Jourdain and the dog Riquette, 1926.
Chaim Soutine, Le pâtissier au mouchoir rouge, 1922-1923. Musée de l’Orangerie, Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume, Paris.
Chaim Soutine, La fiancée, circa 1923. Musée de l’Orangerie, Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume, Paris.
Chaim Soutine, Le grand chapeau, 1923-1924. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 4 May 2010, lot 68.
Chaim Soutine, Le groom, circa 1925. Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Chaim Soutine, Le petit pâtissier, circa 1927. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 8 May 2013, lot 21.
Chaim Soutine, L’enfant de choeur, circa 1927-1928. Musée de l’Orangerie, Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume, Paris.