This work will be included in the forthcoming volume III of the Chaïm Soutine catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow.
Painted circa 1920, Le Couvent des Capucins à Céret dates from one of the most exciting and groundbreaking moments in the career of Chaïm Soutine. Animated by vigorous passion and painted with resolute boldness, the work belongs to a series of landscapes which, between 1919 and 1922, marked the surge of Soutine’s unique and radical style. Like claws clutching the sky, a row of trees introduces the view of a convent, propped up, beyond the fields, on a hill. Laden with dense, corpulent brushstrokes, the painting displays a remarkable facture, in which the strokes of colour are pushed and pulled together creating an interlocking fluid surface in which forms solidify like flowing lava.
The present work depicts a view of Céret, a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Soutine arrived there in 1919, at the suggestion of his art dealer, Léopold Zborowski who had agreed to pay the artist a daily, yet meagre, allowance to allow him to paint there. The choice of Céret had probably not been arbitrary. The town – perched on hills and endowed with an austere charm – had already attracted several artists. In the 1910s, it had welcomed the Cubists – Picasso, Braque and Gris – and had been thus renamed by the art critic André Salmon ‘the mecca of Cubism’. Painters such as Auguste Herbin, Francis Picabia, Moïse Kisling and the poet Max Jacob soon followed suit. Soutine was certainly aware of the cubist ghost that haunted the place. Years later, he would admit that, although not directly, its spirit had in part informed his work at Céret: ‘I never did any cubist work myself, but I was once half tempted to do so. As you know, when I painted in Céret and Cagnes, I succumbed to its influence almost with regret and the outcome was not altogether banal’. Immediately after, however, Soutine acknowledged the innate pictorial charm of the place: ‘But then again nothing about Céret itself is banal. There is so much foreshortening in the landscape that for the same reason any painting of it seems to be made in a very particular style’ (quoted in Soutine: Céret 1919-1922, exh. cat., Céret, 2000, p. 40).
In Soutine’s work, the inherent character of Céret gave birth to some of the artist’s most remarkable paintings. It unleashed an irruptive force that animated his landscapes with a vertiginous dynamism and intense materiality. When discussing Soutine’s ‘Céret style’, scholars often have remarked on two striking characteristics: on the one hand an undeniable sense of movement and instability, on the other a compression of space that creates a unified dimension in which all elements coexist. In Le Couvent des Capucins à Céret, Soutine took his cue from a row of trees: their bent and angular trunks set the rhythm for the rest of the landscape. Everything in the scene seems to be slowly melting against their pull: while the trees in the foreground reach upwards in a desperate twisting motion, everything behind them – the lawn, the hill and the convent – slowly slides downwards in the opposite direction. The effect created is of a destabilising dynamism, in which nature vibrates of its own force in front of the viewer. At the same time, Soutine’s uncompromising use of paint creates a sense of claustrophobic amalgamation. Thick, fluid and raw colour fuses the forms together into an overwhelming pictorial synthesis: the sky is made of the same viscous substance that constitutes the trees and the convent; the green and auburn tones of the earth extend till they meet the sky, mingling with its greys and blacks. Comprising the flesh and bone of the landscape, colour was for Soutine of capital importance: ‘Everything depends on the way colour is mixed, on the way one perceives it and arranges it’ (quoted in Chaïm Soutine, exh. cat., Paris, 2012, p. 45).
Soutine would remain in Céret for three years, until 1922. Reserved, slightly ill-tempered and still destitute, the artist must have cut a mysterious figure in the small village. The poet Pierre Camo, who lived in Céret at the same time as Soutine, would later remember: ‘In addition to [the painter] Pierre Brune, there were three new comers in Céret. One of them, who later became famous, was completely unapproachable. That was Soutine. He was touchy and unsociable; I guess he must have been very shy. He basically lived alone and apart. He was always careful to hide his paintings and could not bear being seen, even from a distance, while he worked. I never had the chance to say a single word to him’ (quoted in Soutine: Céret 1919-1922, exh. cat., Céret, 2000, p. 40). Zborowski’s own memories of Céret similarly depict Soutine as someone unconcerned by society and completely immersed in his work: ‘he goes off to the countryside and lives like a pauper in a shed for pigs. He gets up at four in the morning, walks twenty kilometres with his canvases and paint to find a site that pleases him, and comes back to sleep without even thinking about eating. Then he takes the painting off the frame, lays it over the one he painted the day before, and falls asleep next to them’ (quoted in ibid., p. 40).
Yet, notwithstanding his reticent manners, Soutine is said to have established good relationships with the locals. He also must have been aware of the other painters working at Céret; the convent depicted in the present work, for instance, belonged to the cubist painter Frank Burty Haviland, whose friends Manolo, Pinchus Krémegne, Jean Marchand and Albert Marquet had stayed there and painted the convent. It is unclear whether Soutine also stayed at the convent, but he certainly depicted the motif in several landscapes, capturing the subject from different perspectives. It is possible that the artist had originally executed many more views of Le Couvent des Capucins. Of the 200 paintings Soutine completed at Céret, more than half were later destroyed by the artist. Volatile and drastic, Soutine was famous for his raging attacks on his own work. Indeed, Edmond Brazès, the son of Soutine’s barber at Céret, would testify years later to having seen Soutine burning paintings during his stay there. Later in his career, the artist often tried to buy back his paintings with the sole intention of destroying them. Consumed by an uncompromising passion, Soutine deliberately ignored the fact that, to collectors, art dealers and critics alike, those very works appeared as the finest expression of his unique, groundbreaking and intense pictorial style, to which Le Couvent des Capucins à Céret bears witness.