Against a midnight blue ground, a young man in fancy-dress uniform–a room-service waiter, most likely, in one of the fashionable hotels that proliferated in Paris during the roaring twenties–locks eyes with the viewer. He has a strong, clenched jaw and dark, bushy brows, the left one arched in a subtle show of bravado. His small mouth is firmly set, lending him a touch of truculence, and his crooked nose hints at a history of tussles and brawls. His ill-fitting jacket, however, overwhelms his wiry frame, and his shirt collar is almost comically crooked, imbuing his portrait with a powerful note of pathos. “These are speaking likenesses of more or less humble persons whom Soutine invested with the poise of royalty,” Monroe Wheeler has written. “Who can tell what he thought of them? Surely, he was enthralled by their idiosyncracy. He selects the salient features of these persons, their intensive gaze, outstanding ears, huge interworking hands, and renders them to excess with only summary indication of the body, which he then cloaks in the magnificences of the palette. They are unforgettable” (Soutine, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1950, p. 65).
By the time that Soutine returned to Paris from Cagnes in 1925, he had come a long way from his own humble roots. Three years earlier, the artist–then largely unknown, desperately poor and fraught with anxiety–had attracted the attention of the wealthy and eccentric American collector Albert Barnes. Struck by Soutine’s portrait of a young pastry chef in uniform (“It’s a peach,” he famously declared), Barnes purchased more than fifty of the Lithuanian émigré’s paintings, changing his fortunes in an instant.
While Soutine now enjoyed the means to hobnob with the most fashionable echelons of Parisian society, he opted not to portray them. Instead, he immortalized the anonymous legions who served the elite as they reveled in the nightlife of the capital–bell-hops, valets, floor waiters, concierges, and hotel managers, all stiffly clad in their formal livery. In addition to offering ready-made fields of a single hue that allowed Soutine to indulge his prodigious gifts as a colorist, these characteristic uniforms had the effect of de-individualizing the sitter, categorizing him (for this is an exclusively male world) in terms of social status and occupation. The challenge for Soutine was thus to capture the individual behind the type. “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,” Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow have explained. “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” (op. cit., 1993, p. 509).
Indeed, it is the tension between the seeming detachment of Soutine’s anonymous, uniformed sitters and the force of the artist’s engagement with them that gives his portraits their powerful expressive charge. Soutine returned repeatedly to a narrow range of compositional schemes, conferring on his sitters a self-contained and intentionally “posed” look that demonstrates his resistance to a complete union between artist and model. In the present portrait, for example, the waiter faces front, hands on his hips, commanding the viewer’s attention but apparently unmoved by Soutine’s own scrutiny. Due to the intensity of the relationship that the artist felt in the presence of his subjects, moreover, he rarely painted his friends, or indeed himself, opting for models he did not know. Among his peers, he claimed, the sensations were simply too great, the image too distorted. “So intense were his feelings that he, on occasion, was found unconscious beside his painting,” Jacques Lipchitz claimed, with perhaps a bit of poetic license (quoted in The Impact of Chaim Soutine, exh. cat., Galerie Gmurzynska, Cologne, 2002, p. 81).
At the same time, Soutine consistently painted his subjects close-up, obliterating all sense of physical distance between artist and sitter. In the present portrait, the waiter’s jutting elbows and foreshortened thighs press forward emphatically against the picture plane. The bright white of his dress shirt and the ruddy tones of his face burst forth from the inky blue ground, which in turn grows lighter like a mandorla around the figure, as though he were emitting his own subtle illumination. “There is a terrible poignancy in Soutine’s closeness to the things he paints,” Andrew Forge has written. “He seems to cling to them, to bury himself in them. Everything that he paints is like a close-up, not only because he eliminates the space that separates him from the object but because of the extreme plasticity of the image that he makes of it” (Soutine, London, 1965, pp. 30-31).
Heightening this sense of proximity is Soutine’s signature brushwork–feverish, unrestrained, and powerfully tactile. Here, the sitter’s Prussian-blue uniform is streaked with thin, undulating ribbons of red and pale blue, a virtuoso web of color accents suggestive of arteries and veins. The paint fabric acts as an index of the raw nerves and rumblings beneath the skin of the sitter, recalling the images of recently slaughtered animals, their flesh laid bare for visual scrutiny, that Soutine produced during these same years. “Soutine’s paint as it lies there upon the canvas appears to act like a miraculous teeming substance that actually generates life under our eyes,” David Sylvester has proclaimed. “It is as if, as we look, matter and energy were being continually churned out by the paint, were forever being renewed by it” (Chaim Soutine, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1963, p. 15). These vital, seething strokes command the viewer’s attention and provoke an immediate emotional response, entirely free from the traditional conventions of aestheticism, which mirrors Soutine’s own impassioned experience of painting.
“Soutine’s immersion in the sheer physicality of the world and his feverish commitment to painting was complete and all-consuming,” Tuchman and Dunow have written. “His response to his subjects was visceral. His canvases rivet the viewer with their convincing physical presence and their kinetically charged substance, which embody the fervid inner need that compelled the artist to paint them. Soutine’s intense observation of the visual world, and his impassioned identification with it, all set in motion by peculiar intensity and obsessiveness, enabled him to attain a state of expressionistic exaltation that was exceptional and unprecedented in his day” (Chaim Soutine, exh. cat., Galerie Thomas, Munich, 2009, p. 9).
With its irrepressible intensity of expression, Le garçon d’étage attracted the attention of Soutine’s avant-garde contemporaries soon after it was painted. The first owner of the canvas was Henri Bing, the Parisian gallerist who in 1927 had given Soutine the very first solo exhibition of his career. The canvas subsequently passed to the cubist sculptor Henri Laurens, who had been Soutine’s friend and neighbor at the ramshackle artists’ block “La Rûche” (“The Beehive”) during the painter’s destitute early years in Paris.
Around 1951, eight years after Soutine died from a perforated ulcer while hiding from the Gestapo, the present painting entered the celebrated collection of Ralph and Georgia Colin, whose guest book was a veritable who’s-who of the New York cultural scene at mid-century. The first painting that the Colins ever purchased, in the early 1930s, was a Soutine that is said to have shocked their friends. Undeterred, they hung it over their mantelpiece and went on to acquire fifteen more canvases by the artist, which took their place alongside vanguard works by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Modigliani, and Dubuffet. “The Colins...bring to their purchases not only instinctive flair, but comparative standards which allow them to recognize quality within quality, that is to pick out outstanding works by outstanding artists,” wrote the critic and curator James Thrall Soby when the Colins exhibited these paintings–including Le garçon d’étage–at Knoedler. “As a result, their collection abounds with absolute jewels” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1960, no page).
In the summer of 1951, the Colins loaned the present canvas to a group show at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, which the previous year had mounted a major Soutine retrospective–the first on American soil. On both occasions, his work struck the new generation of the avant-garde with the force of a revelation. Soutine himself had turned to Rembrandt and other old masters for inspiration, extracting and distilling those aspects of their work that helped him to express his own vision. Now, the younger cohort–de Kooning, Pollock, Guston, and Bacon, to name just a few–found in the dense materiality and compulsive energy of Soutine’s paintings a shock of liberation, which affirmed and validated the unfettered gestural expressiveness that they were then pursuing.
“It’s the lushness of the paint,” de Kooning declared. “He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration in his work” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2002, p. 53).