Soutine’s Unusual Cast of Characters: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys

Soutine’s paintings are set in the sizzling 1920s Paris, yet all that is twinkling is absent from his works: it is not the people drinking champagne that catch his eye, but the ones impeccably filling their glasses. A cast of characters of waiters, cooks, maids, bellboys and valets, each carrying a plot, fills two rooms in The Courtauld Gallery as part of the first exhibition of this series of portraits. Make sure to look in their direction before they vanish again to do their chores on 21st of January.

It is the 1920s, we are in Paris at the infamous restaurant Maxim’s and all is twinkling. The terribly chic femme fatale glaring at a debonair gentleman sitting by the grand piano. The debonair gentlemen himself. The piano keyboard. Their chatter, after he approaches her. Their glasses filled with stars.

This is the setting of Soutine’s portraits, yet all that is twinkling is absent from his paintings. Soutine’s subjects are not your usual suspects: it is not the people drinking champagne that catch his eye, but the ones impeccably filling their glasses. A cast of characters of waiters, cooks, maids, bellboys and valets, each a plot in himself or herself, fills two rooms in The Courtauld Gallery as part of the first exhibition of this series of portraits.

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943), Bellboy, around 1925, oil on canvas
Photo Credit: The Courtauld Gallery

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943), a Russian-born painter, is one of the most interesting expressionist artists. At age 20 he moved to Paris where he witnessed the switch on of the service industry constellation, only rivalled by the lights of the Eiffel Tower: a new way of life was being born which gravitated around grand hotels and restaurants, vraies institutions of glamour and leisure. Between 1919 and 1935, Soutine’s paintbrush revealed the emotional complexity of the staff of these venues hiding in plain sight under their colourful uniforms. The resulting series of portraits is one of the only attempts to capture the personnel of the restaurants and bars of the time, and a most powerful one nonetheless.

The young pastry cook, the valet, the waiting maid, the sitter, the butcher boy, the chambermaid. Each is not one, but many: the same uniforms and the same colours are worn by a different personality in each painting. As red, blue, and white become reds, blues, and whites, his characters look down, pout, raise an eyebrow, put their hands on their hips, exude either superiority or servitude, or a mixture of awkwardness and mischief. This is how le jeune pâtissier can be both a red-haired garçon with swagger and a pitiful blonde Dumbo-eared boy sinking in his uniform looking very young and very old at the same time. I guess this shows that there are as many kinds of pastry cooks as there are pastries, to paraphrase Tolstoy.

Each of Soutine’s paintings has a slight caricature feeling about it. The artist traps his subjects in narrow full-length format canvases, exaggerates the size and rosy colour of their foreheads or the sharpness of their chins, either reduces their eyes to blue glass beads or turns them into black abysses; the humble characters adopt royal poses, the cooks’ hats resemble crowns, the butcher boy is butchered himself in reds and pinks. However, all manage to carry an innate tenderness and evoke a deep understanding of each subject’s humanity: Soutine’s portraits have the roughness of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London delivered in a Mendl’s box from Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. As Willem de Kooning rightfully observed, “Soutine distorted the pictures, but not the people”.

Le petit pâtissier, le valet de chambre, la soubrette, le chasseur, le garçon boucher, la femme de chambre. I cannot help but notice that the characters’ names sound truer in French. Perhaps this is because they belong to a certain time and place which vanishes in today’s translation. Always posing in a way, the staff members were never truly noticed by the people they were posing for; perhaps their feathers and velvets and bowties blinded their view, perhaps the liquid stars and dimly lit bars are to blame, or simply the fact that their definition of glamour required some degree of ignorance. But the one person la femme de chambre and le petit pâtisser were not posing for, an unsophisticated young man by the name of Soutine, did notice them. And, thanks to him, so do we.

Make sure to look in the direction of Soutine’s cooks, waiters and bellboys before they vanish again to do their chores on 21st of January.

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