Painted circa 1924, Le boeuf écorché is one of Soutine's celebrated paintings of flesh, a theme that allowed him to explore his obsessions with life and death, and with food and meat. Of only half a dozen paintings that Soutine executed of the full beef carcass, Le boeuf écorché is the only one still in private hands. The others are all in international museums: the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Kunstmuseum, Bern and the Musée de Grenoble in France. Early in its provenance, Le boeuf écorché passed through the hands of the celebrated dealer Henri Bing, who owned paintings that are now in museum collections throughout the world including MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
For years after his arrival in Paris, Soutine had been a struggling, and often starving, artist. This all changed in 1923 when the wealthy American industrialist Dr. Albert C. Barnes bought a vast number of his paintings. This not only relieved Soutine of an immediate burden, but also brought him into the limelight, securing his recognition and success. This had an immediate effect on his paintings, as can be seen especially in the vibrancy and swirling freedom of his landscapes of Cagnes. Now, a rich colourism replaced the sombre and dark palette that had earlier dominated so much of his work. Le boeuf écorché dates from the so-called Cagnes period, and is marked by the same rich colourism. The whirls and eddies of oil that Soutine has used to capture the flesh on the canvas accentuate the deep lushness of the colours of the flesh.
The rich colours in the flesh in this painting reveal Soutine's new, rich colourism, but also reveal something of the circumstances in which the painting was executed. It was partly as a result of his new-found wealth that Soutine found himself able to afford not only a flat, but also a separate studio on the rue du Saint Gothard. This was essentially a shed with skylights and with hooks on the walls. In Le boeuf écorché both are visible. Soutine bought a full beef carcass and trussed it up in his studio and painted. To keep the carcass 'fresh', he poured buckets of blood onto it, and one wonders whether this explains the rich red background in the bottom left of the painting.
As well as needing to be 'refreshed', having the carcass in his studio became problematic for Soutine because neighbours began to complain about the stench and the flies. When the authorities were summoned following the complaints, Soutine managed to persuade them that art was more important than hygiene... In the biography of the artist written by Billy Klüver and Julie Martin, included in the catalogue for the recent exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum, An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaïm Soutine, it is stated that the authorities compromised in insisting that Soutine inject the carcass with formaldehyde, and that this was a process that he repeated for all his paintings of meat from then on. This background to the painting demonstrates the personal sacrifices and discomforts through which Soutine was willing to push himself for his art. It was not only in his expressionistic manner that he was a blood and guts painter.
The subject of meat and food had long played a part in Soutine's work, often hearkening back to Old Master prototypes and predecessors. Soutine's knowledge of the Old Masters was profound as well as reverential. During his earlier, poor years in Paris, he had spent days in the Louvre and painted after the pictures he saw there. Sometimes he was there partly in order to stay warm, partly because he could not afford models or props for his pictures. He therefore resorted to the art of others, creating brooding reimaginings of Old Master works. Soutine must have come to know Rembrandt's famous 1655 painting of The Slaughtered Ox. The similarity in theme and in composition between Le boeuf écorché and its Rembrandt predecessor is unmistakable. Even Soutine's painterly manner appears to pay homage to Rembrandt.
This connection hints at the fact that Le boeuf écorché is not a mere still life painting of meat. As with the Rembrandt, there is a strong sense of crucifixion about the trussed-up carcass. For Soutine, a Jewish painter raised in a Lithuanian shtetl, this theme is given an angst-ridden universality. The butchered animal is presented opened up, taken to pieces, bloody and glistening. It is conspicuously dead, and yet is the raw stuff of life, Soutine exposing the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the simple act of living. The cow has itself been sacrificed, has been killed in order to feed others, a tiny modern re-enactment of the biblical crucifixion. This is a direct result of Soutine's own strange obsession with death, with killing, and with the torment of life:
'Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat. This cry, I always feel it there. When, as a child, I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate' (Soutine, quoted in M. Tuchman, E. Dunow and K. Perls, Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943), Catalogue raisonné, vol. I, Cologne, 1993, p. 16).
Le boeuf écorché is therefore a proto-existentialist painting, the embodiment of a cry that would echo throughout Soutine's paintings, and would find itself reverberating after the Second World War in the paintings of Francis Bacon.
Soutine's associations with food have often been attributed to the important role that it played in both secular and religious rituals in the shtetl. This is in part invoked by his reference to the slaughter at the hands of the butcher, above, as well as to the Yom Kippur killing of the chicken, a ritual descendent of the ancient scapegoat. Food was all the more important to Soutine because of his former poverty, because he had starved so often and so long. Now he had access to plentiful amounts, and could afford to buy meat that he would paint and not eat.
Soutine's associations with meat were further complicated, though, as another result of his former poverty. For the artist had developed stomach ulcers and, now that he could afford rich foods, was unable to eat them and enjoy them without becoming painfully ill. His lush, glistening portrayals of foodstuffs become, in this light, the exorcisms of his hunger and desire. He is devouring this flesh with his eyes, rather than his mouth, creating a sensual feast for himself and for the viewer. This impossible and insatiable infatuation with food and with flesh is perfectly embodied in Le boeuf écorché, in the paradoxical combination of intense beauty and horror of this splayed and mutilated beast. This dead creature, a provider of life, a bloody lump that is rendered fascinatingly beautiful by Soutine's brutal, swirling, painterly brushstrokes. Soutine had a similar paradoxical relationship with Paris, the city in which this picture was painted, and it is perhaps in relation to his oscillating love and resentment of the city that he said, 'In the body of a woman Courbet was able to express the atmosphere of Paris - I want to show Paris in the carcass of an ox' (Alfred Werner, Chaim Soutine, London, 1991, p. 94).