Two exhibitions of portraits: one inspiring, one disappointing

Today I went to see two exhibitions of portraits, one inspired me and one disappointed. The portraits of hotel workers by Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) in the Courtauld Gallery inspired, while those by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), an influence on Soutine, in the National Portrait Gallery mostly disappointed.

Soutine was an unknown impoverished painter in Paris until one day in 1923 an American art collector Albert C Barnes bought 60 of his paintings in one go. Soutine supposedly took the money, went into the Paris street, and hailed a taxi to take him to the South of France.

Famous for painting carcasses of meat, Soutine also painted portraits of hotel workers, those working in the grand hotels of the roaring 20s. The workers wore uniforms and worked long hours for little money. As I looked at one portrait I thought of George Orwell describing in Down and Out in Paris and London how the kitchen staff at Maxim’s used to spit in the soup. The next picture I looked at showed a worker from Maxim’s.

Bell boy

Soutine chose to paint the hotel workers rather than the rich people who stayed in the hotels, and in their faces you see resentment, nervousness, sadness, boredom, uncertainty, and exhaustion. They are the faces of real people, although often painted in what seems almost a casual way but is, of course, the opposite. Soutine was so irritated by one portrait that he slashed the canvas in anger.

Chamber maid

The portraits are powerful and painterly. Soutine uses bold, almost abstract, designs, but the faces are clear–and often in the colours of the carcasses he painted at other times. Sometimes the faces stare out of dark backgrounds, but in other pictures, of chefs and pastry cooks, Soutine revels in painting the whites of their uniforms.


Soutine was an influence on the Abstract Expressionists, particularly William de Kooning, who famously said of the portraits. “Soutine distorted the pictures but not the people.”

Cezanne, in contrast to Soutine, painted people as if they were rocks, trees, or mountains. He was not interested in what was happening inside them. Nevertheless, I found some of his portraits powerful, but I his early ones appealed much than his later ones. The first picture I saw was the one below of his father. It’s large and dramatic, with the writing on the headline of the paper attracting your eye. It was my favourite in the whole exhibition.

Cezanne father

I liked as well the unfinished double portrait of two friends, one of whom, the one sitting, is Emile Zola, a lifelong friend of Cezanne. The composition is unusual and strong.


Cezanne never accepted a commission for a portrait and painted the same people, including himself, his wife, his uncle, and his gardener, again and again. The exhibition included four pictures of his uncle painted with a palette knife that I liked.


But as he matured as a painter Cezanne’s palette became the familiar greens, yellows, and blues and less striking. The colours seem more suitable for landscapes than people. Lin described the colour as “muddy,” and it certainly was compared with the portraits of Soutine. The compositions also became less interesting, and the multiple pictures of his wife I found dull. There was no love or desire in them, and Cezanne didn’t live with his wife and son in later life. In his last self-portrait Cezanne, although now famous, looks lonely, crushed, and miderable.


It’s unusual to like painters’ early pictures better than their later ones, when they have developed their mature style, but that was the case here for me. Lin felt the same. I’d take a Soutine over a Cezanne portrait every day.



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