Chaim Soutine (1893-1943)

Le grand chapeau

Chaim Soutine (1893-1943)
Le grand chapeau
oil on canvas
36¾ x 25¾ in. (93.3 x 65.4 cm.)
Painted in 1923-1924
Paul Guillaume, Paris (by 1929).
Valentine Gallery, New York.
Gardner Dailey, San Francisco (by 1940).
Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Lindner, San Francisco (by 1950).
David Pleydell-Bouverie, California (by descent from the above, by 1976); sale, Christie's, New York, 31 October 1978, lot 36.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
W. George, Arts à Paris, Paris, 1929, p. 32 (illustrated).
A. Sayre, "Untitled review," in Art News, February 1936, p. 7.
"Vital San Francisco Museum," in Art Digest, February 1940, p. 10 (illustrated)
P. Courthion, Soutine, peintre du déchirant, Lausanne, 1972, pp. 202-203, no. D (illustrated, p. 202; dated 1920-1922).
M. Tuchman, E. Dunow and K. Perls, Chaïm Soutine 1893-1943: Catalogue Raisonné, Cologne, 1993, vol. II, pp. 614-615, no. 67 (illustrated in color, p. 615).
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, La grande peinture contemporaine à la collection Paul Guillaume, May-June 1929, p. 32 (illustrated).
Paris and New York, DeMotte, Inc., 1930, no. 462.
New York, Valentine Gallery, February 1936, no. 19.
San Francisco Museum of Art, Contemporary Art: paintings, watercolors and sculpture owned in the San Francisco bay region, January-February 1940, no. 283 (illustrated).
San Francisco Museum of Art, Art of Our Time, January-February 1945, no. 47.
San Francisco Museum of Art and San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fifteenth Anniversary Exhibition, 1950-1951.
San Francisco Museum of Art, Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition, January 1955.
San Francisco Museum of Art, Art in the Twentieth Century, June-July 1955, p. 17.
The Arts Club of Chicago, Chaïm Soutine: Paintings, October 1956, no. 50.
San Francisco Museum of Art, Zacks Collection, May 1957.
California Palace of the Legion of Honor (on extended loan, 1959).
San Francisco, M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, European Works of Art in the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, 1966 (titled Le capote rouge).
San Francisco Museum of Art (on extended loan, 1975).

Lot Essay

The early 1920s was a period of tremendous personal and artistic growth for Soutine. It was during this time that he was discovered by the great American collector and benefactor of the arts, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who purchased almost all of the paintings that he could from the painter, granting him wealth, comfort and recognition. This in turn led to a greater air of freedom in Soutine's paintings, which became increasingly bold under the influence of his travels in the French countryside and especially the South of France.

Painted in 1923-1924, this portrait of an unnamed sitter appears to date from Soutine's so-called Cagnes period, just before his return to Paris. The swirling paint--so energetic and also disarming--is characteristic of Soutine's portraits of this period, and is a distinctive feature of his famous depictions of butchers, pastry chefs and work in the still-life genre. Soutine effectively uses the dramatic contrast between the dark impenetrable background and her vivid red clothing, beacon-like on the dark canvas, to direct attention to the vigorously painted face and upper chest, isolating this flesh as he would that of a carcass of beef. It was during this period that Soutine was most indelibly impressed with the work of the Old Masters, which he repeatedly visited at the Musée du Louvre. Works such as Jean-Baptiste Chardin's Still Life with Rayfish, circa 1728, and Rembrandt van Rijn's Beef Carcass, 1655, became the inspiration for series of recreations. Attributes of the Old Master style--dark backgrounds, rich jewel-toned colors, glossy surfaces-- would suddenly pervade Soutine's work in every genre.

Soutine's portraits were a unique enterprise, and not portraits in the traditional sense. Unlike his contemporaries, who were commonly engaged with depicting known sitters, the glamorous icons and celebrities of the period, Soutine's preferred subjects were the everyday people of the street--hotel employees, baker's boys, butchers. It was rare for Soutine to paint a personal acquaintance--only a handful of such paintings are known--and instead he favored strangers, subjects unaccustomed to being observed. In a sense, this showed the artist, who had himself known the bitter taste of extreme poverty for far too long, celebrating the underdog in his pictures, granting them a relative immortality, crystallizing them in oils and allowing them to claim a posterity that otherwise would almost certainly have eluded them.

Part of this reluctance to paint his friends--or indeed himself (only three known self-portraits remain)--was due to the intensity of the relationship that the painter felt in the presence of his sitter. Soutine's paintings are a record not only of appearance but also of sensation. In his swirling oils, the artist has managed to capture emotions--his pictures reveal the subjective feelings that lead to a true, personal, yet distorted view of the world. With his friends, the sensations were too great, the image too distorted, whereas with these strangers he was afforded some degree of objectivity, an emotional distance. This distance gave Soutine the upper hand; standing behind the easel, scrutinising his sitter, he was in control of the situation, and this awareness in both painter and subject creates a different relationship that itself characterises the greatest of his portraits.

The most striking element in Soutine's figurative works is surely the unrestrained painterliness and physical distortion of the figures. Soutine's expressionistic and agitated application of paint, his sonorous palette and willful distortion of form challenge the aesthetic values in the French grande tradition--its classical sense of order in nature and its emphasis on measure and clarity. "While his 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" (M. Tuchman, op. cit, p. 509). In this case, our anonymous subject appears contentedly self-aware of the artist's observation. There is a noticeable lilt to her pose and a slight smirk to her smile; both characteristics are even more clearly legible in another painting of the same subject, La femme en rouge, of the same year (fig.1).

It was not only Soutine's startling proficiency with oils that intrigued later artists such as Frank Auerbach and, more importantly, Francis Bacon--it was also searing vision of his sitters. For Bacon especially, the concept of seeing life as under a microscope, riddled with the implied mortality of the flesh that Soutine has captured so well in the face and hands of the sitter, had a huge impact. In this picture, Soutine has captured the energy, anxiety and fragility of life in an ineffably modern manner.

(fig. 1) Chaïm Soutine, La femme en rouge, circa 1923-1924. Private collection.

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