This work will be included in the forthcoming third volume of the Chaim Soutine catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow.
In 1913, at the age of twenty, Soutine left his native Lithuania, where he had been attending the city art academy at Vilna, and journeyed some two thousand kilometers to Paris. Accompanied by his friend and fellow painter Michel Kikoïne, he joined another comrade, Pinchus Krémègne, who had emigrated the previous year. The trio settled at “La Rûche” (“The Beehive”), a dilapidated warren of studios in bohemian Montparnasse that served as the first stop in Paris for many artists from Russia and Eastern Europe. Among their neighbors were Archipenko, Chagall, Kisling, Laurens, and Zadkine. Soutine lost no time in continuing his artistic training, enrolling in Fernand Cormon’s atelier at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where Van Gogh had studied years before, and attending evening drawing sessions at the Académie Russe. His true education, however, came from informal gatherings at the Café de la Rotonde, the unofficial headquarters of Picasso and his avant-garde colleagues, and from regular visits to the Louvre, where he immersed himself in the art of the Old Masters.
“I see Soutine’s arrival in Paris as a fantastic conjunction,” Andrew Forge has written. “From nothing, a cultural desert, he finds himself 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 Le nain rouge, an intensely expressive portrait of an adult man with dwarfism, in 1916-1917, within several years of his entry into the Paris art world. It is among his earliest surviving figure paintings. He had moved by then to another ramshackle artists’ block in Montparnasse, the Cité Falguière, where his closest friend and staunchest supporter was Modigliani. “There can hardly have been a greater contrast between them,” Forge has noted. “Modigliani, handsome, profoundly cultured, his modernity tinctured with Italian sweetness–Soutine uncouth, persecuted, learning every inch of the way, indifferent to the purely aesthetic statement” (ibid., p. 8). Léopold Zborowski, the Polish poet turned art dealer who had recently begun to represent Modigliani, took an interest in Soutine as well, but as yet there was no hope of income from sales; even well-established artists faced a grim market in Paris during the First World War.
To eke out a meager living while he painted and attended class, Soutine took odd jobs as a railway baggage porter and a factory hand in a Renault plant, and he enlisted for a time in the work brigades that were building fortifications around Paris, before being dismissed for weak health. The poverty and hunger that Soutine had known in the Jewish ghetto of Smilovitchi, the small town near Minsk where he 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. “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,” Maurice Tuchman has written. “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” (Chaim Soutine: Catalogue Raisonné, Cologne, 1993, p. 16).
Painted in the midst of this lean and desperate period, the present portrait already displays many of the signature traits of Soutine’s famously impassioned, expressive mature style. From the very outset, Soutine committed himself to painting directly from life, abjuring the rarified formal experimentation that underlies cubism, among other modern movements. Working from a state of heightened concentration and a profound identification with his subject, he painted with a visceral intensity, driven by an unruly compulsion to capture on canvas his most immediate sensations before the motif. “His paintings were spontaneity themselves,” proclaimed Lipchitz, his neighbor at the Cité Falguière. “After the meticulous calculations of Cézanne, Seurat and the cubists, Soutine’s paintings brought a liberation to the young generation of his time” (quoted in The Impact of Chaim Soutine, exh. cat., Galerie Gmurzynska, Cologne, 2002, p. 81).
In Le nain rouge, Soutine has obliterated all sense of distance between himself and his unidentified sitter, most likely a neighborhood character whom the artist persuaded to pose for him rather than a circus performer like Picasso’s Dwarf Dancer “La Nana”. The figure is presented close-up and full-face against a muted brown backdrop, isolated and centered within the pictorial field, his head reaching to the very top edge of the canvas. This restricted compositional format enabled Soutine to give maximum emotional concentration to his subject and at the same time resolve that image structurally, relating the figure to its two- and three-dimensional space. Here, the sitter appears to be midway between seated and standing, his knees slightly bent and his hands on his thighs, as though Soutine has captured him somewhat clumsily rising from the cushiony couch in the background. This awkward stance recalls Velázquez’s sympathetic portrait of the court dwarf and jester Sebastián de Morra, his short legs pointing forward in an inelegant position reminiscent of a marionette (circa 1645; Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Soutine has called attention to the proportional distortions of his model, highlighting his lined face and adult-sized hands against his slight, slope-shouldered frame. Although the sitter’s impishly pointed chin and prominent ears create a slightly comic effect, his neatly parted and combed hair suggests that he has taken pains with his appearance before posing for the artist. Soutine, facing his model, was attentive not only to the superficial particularities but also to the deeper characteristics of personality, and here he seems to project all his own inner unrest into the poignant and disquieting sidelong glance of the sitter, who finds himself unable to meet the artist’s penetrating gaze.
“These early pictures...are in essentials remarkably consistent with the work of his maturity,” Forge has declared. “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. These elements are hardly to be separated. They are integral to his vision. Nothing is to change here as the years go by, nothing drops out” (op. cit., 1965, p. 11).
Soutine remained in Paris for almost the entire duration of the First World War, fleeing south to Cagnes with Zborowski and Modigliani only in the spring of 1918, when the Germans began lobbing massive shells into the capital in a last-ditch, all-out offensive. He was working in near-total solitude in Céret by 1922 when Dr. Albert Barnes’s chance discovery of his art–today the stuff of modern-art legend–transformed his fortunes in an instant. “But he always thought of himself as a wanderer and an Ishmael, no matter how successful,” Mortimer Wheeler has written. “And in his extraordinary and implausible life, he achieved no real self-assurance, no comfort or any great illusion–except about art” (Soutine, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1950, p. 36).