Soutine’s Portraits: Waiters, Cooks and Bellhops, The Courtauld Gallery, London

19 October 2017 – 21 January 2018

The Courtauld turns its focus onto hotel service staff painted in Paris and the south of France by the Russian émigré Chaïm Soutine, an expressionist much forgotten.

Chaïm Soutine's portraits can be challenging. The expressionist channelled the pain of his early experiences into his brushstrokes, and his figures appear distorted by inner unrest. Perhaps that accounts for the length of time since his last UK exhibition: 35 years.

Things were very different in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, when Soutine was friends with Chagall and Modigliani. The migrant painter was lifted out of poverty in a moment of sudden good fortune, when US collector Albert Barnes bought 50 of his paintings in one fell swoop.

But Soutine stayed close to his impoverished origins. Many of his subjects were service class, the self-effacing staff of hotel and restaurants in the French capital and the south of France. Painting these anonymous lives in their colourful liveries and off-duty attitudes, he captured a depth of character a Russian novelist would be proud of. 

Such a feel for character may have been precisely what appealed to Barnes, who claimed that an early portrait of a pastry chef was one of the greatest works of modern art. His verdict sets the tone for the rest of the paintings in this tightly curated show.