In 1913 Soutine, accompanied by his friend and fellow painter Michel Kikoïne, left Vilna, Lithuania, where they had been attending the city art academy, and journeyed to Paris. There they joined another comrade, Pinchus Krémègne, who had emigrated the year before and persuaded them to come. They lived and painted in "La Ruche" ("The Beehive"), a dilapidated building in Montparnasse which housed a warren of artist's studios. Among his neighbors were Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, Moïse Kisling, Henri Laurens and Ossip Zadkine. Andrew Forge has written, "I see Soutine's arrival in Paris as a fantastic conjunction. From nothing, a cultural desert, he finds himself in the Louvre, facing Rembrandt, Corot, Courbet, the skill and taste and sumptuousness of the centuries. From a closed rural society he finds himself in an open culture at the climax of a half century of ferment. It is a measure of his stamina and the force of his need for self-definition that he was able to absorb and use so much" (Soutine, London, 1965, p. 11).
Soutine painted Femme couchée sur un divan rouge around 1916, within a few years of his entry into the Paris art world--it is among his earliest surviving figure paintings. His friends now included Amedeo Modigliani and Jacques Lipchitz, who were neighbors at his new address, the Cité Falguiere in Montparnasse. Léopold Zborowski, the Polish poet recently turned art dealer who had begun to represent Modigliani, took an interest in Soutine as well, but as yet there was no hope of income from sales; even established artists faced a poor market in Paris during the First World War. Soutine worked odd jobs as a railway baggage porter, a factory hand in a Renault plant, and enlisted for a time in the work brigades which were building fortifications around Paris.
The poverty and hunger that Soutine had known in the Jewish ghetto of Smilovitchi, the small town near Minsk where he was born and grew up, continued to hound his existence in Paris. Settings of pitifully meager meals, at times more a wish than reality, became the subjects of his first still-life paintings. Maurice Tuchman has written, "it was the kind of gnawing, continual want that can break one's will to work or live. It left a permanent scar on him both physically and emotionally... But for Soutine these years were hardly less bitter than earlier times in Lithuania...whatever energy was left from his work was devoted to staying alive" (op. cit., p. 16).
The present painting already displays many of the signature traits of Soutine's famously impassioned, expressive style. From the very outset, Soutine committed himself to working directly from life, painting the physical reality of what he saw in front of him as directly as he knew how. Working from a state of heightened concentration and a profound identification with his subject, he proceeded to paint with a visceral intensity that is compellingly manifest in every part of the picture. These qualities are apparent throughout Femme couchée, from the clenched intertwining of clothing and arms in the unknown sitter's upper body, to the cascading rivers of paint that form her dress, bounded on all sides by a vivid sea of red in a blood-like hue. There are beautiful details as well; the young woman's visage evinces a wistful mood, and Soutine has rendered her long-fingered, feminine hands with remarkable delicacy. Forge has declared, "These early pictures...are in essentials remarkably consistent with the work of his maturity... All the hallmarks of his vision are here: the character of the image that convinces us that the subject was before his eyes when he painted it; the vitality with which the forms are described; the expressive deformation in the drawing... Nothing is to change here as the years go by, nothing drops out" (ibid.).
(fig. 1) Chaim Soutine, Autoportrait, circa 1918. Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, Inc., New York.