We all have our idols. Not surprisingly, painters idolise other painters. I drool over Salvador Dali. I respect Norman Rockwell. I love John Singer Sargent. I'm in awe of Rembrandt. I can lose myself in a Caravaggio. The thing we don't often think about is that our idols also had idols. Abstract Expressionists tend to idolise Kandinsky, de Kooning, or Pollock of the New York School. Ever wonder whom they idolised? There were several. Amongst them were Picasso, of course, Chagall, Matisse, van Gogh, and also a man whose name is not a household word (I'm talking an art household here) amongst non-representational painters--Chaim Soutine.
If the name is not familiar, it's little wonder. First of all he is, by art history standards, relatively recent. He was born in 1894 in Smilovich, Lithuania to an impoverished Jewish tailor and his wife. He was the tenth of eleven children (which would no doubt account for the poverty). He landed in Paris in the early 1920s where he took a few art classes and seemingly enjoyed the Bohemian lifestyle which characterised the art community all over Europe between the wars. His painting from this period was thoroughly expressionistic, even at times abstract expressionistic twenty years before there was such a term. He loved to buy used canvases at flea markets upon which he painted. His work was thought of as "naive." In fact, a shrewd American collector of such work, named Dr. Albert Barnes, spotted his paintings in Paris and gobbled them up for a song--all fifty-two of them. Soutine was suddenly successful beyond his wildest dreams. And success changed him.
He immersed himself in Rembrandt. The critic, Clement Greenberg, called him a victim of the Louvre. He also devoured Chardin and Courbet. And if you liked his early work, you'd probably not care much for that which followed. Soutine discovered the slaughterhouse next door to the to the tenement commune where he lived, as well as more traditional French subject matter. His style, his palette, his content from this period is raw. Though the Paris art world of the 1920s hadn't cared much for Soutine the savage, uncouth, immigrant Lithuanian, they loved the "new" Soutine. They loved his series of uniformed servants, his 1925 Page Boy at Maxim' and his 1927 Pastry Cook for instance. In each case, you have the feeling that the artist and his model were at war, the canvas the battlefield, and that though it was a close call, Soutine eventually "won." But in due time, this war ceased being figurative and became real. Hitler invaded France. Soutine was Jewish. For three years he hid out, on the run, the trauma precipitating a perforated ulcer. Eventually, as allied forces were pushing the Germans out of Paris, Soutine found his way to a hospital there (or what passed for one under those circumstances). But it was too late. He died in 1943. He was 50.
Epilogue--Just seven years after his death, Soutine's work came to New York. A retrospective in 1950 at the Museum of Modern Art coincided perfectly with the nascent period of Abstract Expressionism. Many critics, looking back, consider it the spark that ignited the popularity of the New York School. De Kooning and Pollock both have called Soutine one of their greatest influences. I can believe that.