'The 1931 Woman Wading perhaps represents a peak in Soutine's career and it is one of his finest pictures' (A. Werner, Chaim Soutine, London, 1991, p. 37).
Dating from circa 1931, La femme entrant dans l'eau is one of the most iconic and recognisable of Chaïm Soutine's paintings, having featured in a range of exhibitions and monographs dedicated to the artist. One reason for this work's outstanding status within Soutine's oeuvre is in part the sheer bravura of his brushwork in creating this contemplative vision of a woman pausing as she delicately enters the water: there is a vivid contrast between the expressionistic application of paint, which has been carried out with an array of swirls and drips that speak of the artist's incredible energy. At the same time, this picture shows the importance that the Old Masters played in Soutine's life: they served as muses and guiding lights alike, in particular Rembrandt, whose own masterpiece, Woman Bathing in a Stream of 1654 from the National Gallery, London, was a clear model for Soutine here. It is a tribute to the importance of La femme entrant dans l'eau that it was kept in the collection of Madeleine Castaing, one of Soutine's greatest patrons, for decades after its creation. La femme entrant dans l'eau is one of three pictures showing a woman entering water, clutching her skirts; however, the other two, respectively entitled La femme au bain and Marie au bain, are smaller and do not show her in her entirety, as she is depicted here.
Soutine's complex relationship with the Old Masters had begun decades earlier. According to legend, already on arrival in Paris from Vilnius (then named Vilna), he had rushed to the Louvre before seeking lodgings for himself, devouring the art on the walls, and would haunt its galleries for years to come, either alone or in the company of friends such as the Castaings. Waldemar George, who was one of Soutine's early advocates, recalled seeing him there, ostensibly on his first visit:
'So it was that one morning, in the soft light of the Ile-de-France, I saw an unknown young man with a low brow and a shifty gaze standing in front of the Funeral at Ornans. He moved on, hugging the walls. He seemed possessed by fear. Whenever anyone approached him he would move away. He looked at the works of masters of the past in the same way a believer gazes on holy images. I was curious, and followed him through the rooms of the museum. A few hours later, apparently satiated, he made for the way out, stopped in front of Ingres's La Source, then went downstairs to the cloakroom and took out a suitcase that no doubt contained his possessions. I got to know him two or three years later. It was Chaim Soutine' (W. George, quoted in M. Castaing & J. Leymarie, Soutine, London, 1965, p. 18).
From that point onwards, the Old Masters of the Louvre and elsewhere provided a constant backdrop to Soutine's paintings, helping to inspire the dark palette of his earlier works, before the explosive colourism of his landscapes from Céret and Cagnes. Their influence did not diminish then: indeed, his dialogue with Rembrandt in particular developed over the years. As the author Jean Leymarie wrote, 'Soutine declared boundless admiration for Rembrandt. He often went to Amsterdam to sink in contemplation of The Jewish Bride' (ibid., p. 32). During the mid-1920s, inspired by Rembrandt's Boeuf écorché in the Louvre, Soutine had created a number of views of a hanging carcass, dripping with blood in his studio. Rather than painting from Rembrandt's image, he was seeking to channel the subject, to approach it in his own right, yet while acknowledging the importance of his predecessor. For that reason, he caused havoc in Paris, hanging the carcass of a cow for day after day while he painted.
A similar process was used when Soutine turned towards Rembrandt's Woman Bathing in a Stream for subject matter and inspiration in La femme entrant dans l'eau. Instead of painting from a reproduction of the picture, Soutine wanted to work from life. He was staying in Lèves, at the home of Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing. He had met the couple as early as 1919, yet their friendship had only developed later, especially when they were both visiting Châtel-Guyon during the Summer of 1926. Soon, he was spending entire tranches of his time with them, especially in the holidays, and they were great supporters of his painting. They were doubtless instrumental in helping to locate a model for Soutine. Indeed, the creation of La femme entrant dans l'eau, due to Soutine's particularity, was to become the stuff of legend, and accounts of it exist in several books. Leymarie would write, in a book co-authored with Marcellin Castaing:
'For the position and spiritual atmosphere, Soutine took his inspiration from Rembrandt's Woman in her Bath, the London panel even more radiantly intimate than the contemporary Bathsheba in The Louvre. Even in such a case as this he needed a model, and naturally this proved difficult to find. After much prospecting in the area round Chrartres, he finally chose a humble peasant girl embodying at once the entire species and the particular effect desired. He had first to overcome her reticence and allay her husband's suspicions. At last she consented to strike the exact pose in which she is shown, under the arch of a bridge, lifting her skirt and standing up to her knees in the stream that flows through the park at Lèves. It is a bewitchingly poetic spot. Soutine was painting away one summer evening when a storm broke. He went on in the pelting rain, lit by flashes of lightning, drenched to the skin, and unaffected by the terrified screams of the model. The result is a masterpiece of majestic splendour, the most touching homage to the modesty and dignity of woman clothed in her perishable, trembling flesh: a supreme monument' (M. Castaing & J. Leymarie, Soutine, London, 1965, p. 32).
Looking at La femme entrant dans l'eau, the viewer cannot help but remark upon Soutine's originality: while the composition clearly owes itself to Rembrandt, the expressive brushwork is wholly his own. Even the motif has changed subtly: Soutine has presented his subject facing him directly, rather than at the faintly oblique angle of Rembrandt's original. There is a rawness both in the brushstrokes and in the subject itself, emphasised by the tales of the model's terror during the creation of the picture. In its frenetically gestural application of paint and its ungilded presentation of the subject of woman, La femme entrant dans l'eau may be seen to prefigure the pictures of women that would later be painted by Jean Dubuffet, creating a bridge between the art of the past and of the future.