Sunday, March 28, 2021

Art Eyewitness Review: Alice Neel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Alice Neel: People Come First

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 22 - August 1, 2021

Reviewed by Ed Voves                                                                       OriginaL Photos by Anne Lloyd

Alice Neel waited until very late in her life to paint a formal self-portrait. Neel was seventy-five when she started, soon giving-up on the work, only to resume and complete it five years later, in 1980.

Neel's Self-Portrait was - and is - an unsettling work. It is unsparing, unsentimental, uncompromising. The list of "un's" keeps growing the longer you look at it. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) 
Gallery view of the Alice Neel exhibit, showing Neel's Self-Portrait

Neel portrayed herself in the nude, without any attempt to minimize or gloss over the ravages of time on her aging body. But the indomitable look in her eyes is the most striking feature of this work. With only four years left to live, Neel stared Death in the face, in order to fix the image of herself for the world to remember.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Detail of Alice Neel's Self-Portrait, 1980

This remarkable work of art is now on view in a magnificent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met's exhibit is the first in twenty years to examine Neel's entire career in detail and it does justice to her life-long determination to live and paint her way.

It is singularly appropriate that the Met should mount an exhibition of the life and work of Alice Neel (1900-1984) at this troubled moment when so many are struggling. For the most part, Alice Neel focused on individual people or very small groups of people facing life's challenges.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) 
Metropolitan Museum banner for the Alice Neel exhibition 

The Met show's title, Alice Neel: People Come First testifies to Neel's artistic creed, which she summed up in profound statement.

Every person is a new universe with its own laws emphasizing some belief or phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by.

With the Covid-19 pandemic crisis entering its second full-year, people are starved of the human interaction or opportunity to express their individuality which we see depicted in Neel's paintings. It was truly wonderful to see the visitors to the Met's Tisch Gallery, where the Neel exhibit is displayed, relating to each other, as well as the masterpieces on the museum walls. This humane environment is something many of us took for granted before the pandemic - and hopefully will not do so again.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) 
Gallery view of the Alice Neel: People Come First exhibition

Neel seldom took anything for granted. It needs to be acknowledged, however, that the difficult circumstances of her life gave her few opportunities to rest on her laurels.

Alice Neel was born in Merion, PA, at the turn of the twentieth century. Merion is a suburb of Philadelphia. Neel, who showed  artistic promise from an early age, attended the Philadelphi School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art), 1921-1925. The same year of her graduation, she married a Cuban artist, Carlos Enriquez, whose portrait by Neel appears in the Met exhibition.

For a brief period, Neel's future seemed one of promise. Then, in 1927, her young daughter died. Neel suffered acute depression, culminating in a nervous collapse and an attempt to take her own life. Estranged from her husband, Neel faced the Great Depression with little to sustain her, except occasional sales of her work. Then, in 1933, she secured on-again/off-again employment with the Public Works of Art Project which operated under the direction of Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum.

Painting and devotion to social justice issues helped Neel survive the hard times of the 1930's and 1940's. The range of her work during this period, often gritty and brutally honest, is well illustrated by the works on view in the Met exhibit. Neel's cityscapes of New York and her portraits of neighbors and friends in Spanish Harlem reveal her talent for realism and her penetrating insight into human character.

Focusing on two early portraits, Kenneth Fearing and T.B. Harlem enables us to grasp the wider implications of Neel's oeuvre.

Alice Neel, Kenneth Fearing, 1935

Kenneth Fearing, painted in 1935, combines realism with elements of
Symbolism and Surrealism. Against a background similar to her cityscapes, Neel portrays Fearing, a prominent left-wing poet and writer, surrounded by diminutive figures from his verses. Here, enlightenment, conjured in the vision of a light bulb, combined with elements of horror and fantasy. The skeleton holding Fearing's bleeding heart seems utterly in keeping with Fearing's character and the tenor of his socially conscious writing.

Alice Neel, T.B. Harlem, 1940

The stark reality of T.B. Harlem (1940) needed no embellishing details. The searing portrait of this dying victim of tuberculosis told its own tale and people of the time would have recognized the bandage over his chest as the result of the medical procedure to treat a collapsed lung of the T.B. patient by removing part of his rib cage. 

The martyred protagonist of T.B. Harlem was Carlos Negron, brother of Neel's lover/companion during the late 1930's, José Negron. The haunted look in the eyes of Carlos is so overwhelmingly powerful and compelling that we, today , might well miss the point that his bandage is placed exactly where the skeleton and bleeding heart were positioned in Kenneth Fearing

Did Neel herself make the connection in these two wounded breasts, painted five years apart? Perhaps not, but suffering, physical, emotional, psychological, runs through Neel's work like an electrical current over the long years of her career.

Another terrible torso scar appears much later in what is Neel's most famous portrait, that of Andy Warhol. Neel painted Warhol in 1970, following the  assassination attempt by Valerie Solanis. The portrait was done at Warhol's request, rather than Neel's. This is significant for it shows that Neel, after years of neglect during the high tide of Abstract Expressionism, was gaining a measure of celebrity. It also explains the ambivalence in the portrait, so different from the spirit of T.B. Harlem.

Warhol and Neel did not clash during the painting session, but the closed eye stance of Warhol may partly reflect an awareness that he and Neel were not kindred souls. In fact, Neel felt a powerful antipathy to Warhol's "brand", if not to him personally.

Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970

Warhol, "as an art-world personality...  represents a certain pollution of this era," Neel stated bluntly. "I think he's the greatest advertiser living, not a great portrait painter."

Yet, in this depiction of the physical evidence of violence, Neel brilliantly captured the pain behind Warhol's averted eyes. There are moments and memories of suffering so intense that we have to close our eyes or look away. We need to do so in order that we can reconnect with our injured humanity and to grapple with the inescapable fact of our mortality. 

Pondering over human individuality and the complex emotions of the portrait sitters comes thick and fast in Alice Neel: People Come First at the Met. Indeed, it is almost impossible not to engage with Neel's portraits without deep reflection. And that is true of her cityscapes, as well, despite the seeming lack of inhabitants.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Alice Neel's 107th and Broadway, 1976

Spend a few moments looking at 107th and Broadway, painted in 1976. There are people behind those windows - you can feel them, sense their eyes peering back at us. 

The same can be said of the shadow of a neighboring building as it is cast on the white-hued structure which otherwise engulfs the picture plane. There is a human presence in this ghostly form. It may seem ominous, at first, until we become aware that the shadow is of the building where Neel lived and worked during her final years of life.

These were the years when Neel finally achieved the recognition she deserved. With the long years of struggle behind her, she might have settled back and painted portraits of the "rich and famous." But the ordeal of her early career resonated with Neel for as long as she lived. A woman of great wit and earthy sensuality, Neel's empathy was greater still.

I felt this strongly as I moved back and forth, looking at three late-career portraits of mothers and their infant children: a Hindu woman and her child, Neel's daughter-in-law, Nancy and her twin daughters, and lastly, Carmen and Judy, painted in 1972.

There was something incredibly poignant about Carmen and Judy. I could not quite fathom it, until I read the "backstory" of this modern-day Madonna and Child. Carmen Gordon, whose face is frozen in a look of desperate hope, was the Haitian woman who worked and cared for Neel in her later years. Judy, underweight, listless and struggling, was Carmen's baby daughter. She died, tragically, soon after the painting was completed.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Alice Neel's Carmen and Judy, 1972

Neel must have sensed, along with Carmen, that the baby was at risk. The feeling of life's preciousness so infuses this work that the bond between a mother, who had lost her daughter in 1927, with one who was about to lose her child in 1972, was already firmly established.

This gift of empathy, so evident in Carmen and Judy, was Alice Neel's greatest gift. And it remains, long years after Neel's death, a gift to us. Ours for the taking, should we choose to accept.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd.  All rights reserved. Images of Alice Neel paintings, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Introductory image: Alice Neel (American, 1900-1984) The Spanish Family, 1943. Oil on canvas: 34 × 28 in. (86.4 × 71.1 cm) Estate of Alice Neel.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Alice Neel People Come First exhibition, showing Alice Neel's Self Portrait, 1980. Oil on canvas: 53 1/4 × 39 3/4 × 1 in. (135.3 × 101 × 2.5 cm) National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Detail of Alice Neel's Self Portrait, 1980. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Museum banner for the Alice Neel: People Come First exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Alice Neel: People Come First exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Alice Neel (American, 1900-1984) Kenneth Fearing, 1935. Oil on canvas: 30 1/8 × 26 in. (76.5 × 66 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Hartley S. Neel and Richard Neel, 1988.

Alice Neel (American, 1900-1984) T.B. Harlem, 1940. Oil on canvas: 30 × 30 in. (76.2 × 76.2 cm). National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay.

Alice Neel (American, 1900-1984) Andy Warhol, 1970. Oil and acrylic on linen: 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Timothy Collins.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Photo of Alice Neel's 107th and Broadway, 1976. Oil on canvas: 59 3/4 × 34 in. (151.8 × 86.4 cm). Private collection, Washington D.C..

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Photo of Carmen and Judy1972. Oil on canvas: 40 × 29 7/8 in. (101.6 × 75.9 cm) Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Westheimer Family Collection

Friday, March 19, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Impressionism in Russia

Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant-Garde

Edited by Ortrud Westheider

Prestel/256 pages/$50

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant-Garde, recently published by Prestel, explores a little known chapter in art history. It is so "little known" that many art enthusiasts in the West are likely to be unaware that it ever took place. This episode is the story of Russian painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who actively embraced Impressionism as their chosen creative technique.

Impressionism, it should be emphasized, has long been recognized as a major force in Russian art. Several of the great masters of Russian painting during the late 1800's, notably Ilia Repin and Isaac Levitan, incorporated elements of Impressionism in major works of art. 

Isaac Levitan, March, 1895

Even more well known in the saga of Impressionism is the role of two of Russia's great art connoisseurs, Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) and Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). These two industrial magnates amassed astounding collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Later, they graduated to Fauvism and Cubism, Shchukin buying works by Matisse and Picasso by the roomful. 

Neither of these developments, however, translates to a Russian Impressionist movement or school of painting. Yet, as the Prestel book and the related exhibition demonstrate, Impressionism did secure an important place in Russia by the 1890's, continuing to the outbreak of World War I and a brief revival in the late 1920's.

Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant-Garde, as the book's subtitle proclaims, promoted new attitudes to visual expression which resulted in bold - and bewildering - art forms in the years leading up to World War I.


Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant-Garde is being published in conjunction with a major exhibition to be held at the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Germany, March 27-August 15, 2021. The exhibition, which just completed its initial showing at the Museum Barberini, near Berlin, is not scheduled to appear in the United States. Sadly, given the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the difficulties imposed by Covid-19, it is unlikely that these "little known"  masterpieces of Russian Impressionism will be seen in the U.S. any time soon.

For the present, American lovers of Russian art, like myself, will have to content ourselves with this volume from Prestel. Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant-Garde, I am happy to relate, is an outstanding book, both in terms of its scholarly, and generally well-written, essays and the superlative color tones and graphic quality of its illustrations.

The sheer number of Russian artists who painted - or at least experimented - in the Impressionist style might make for some difficulty for readers who are not familiar with Russian art. However, another feature of this outstanding book is the group of short biographies of these artists, each with a small portrait photo. Whenever I found myself challenged by the cast of unfamiliar characters, I consulted these "bios" and was immediately back on track

The story of Russian Impressionism begins with the exploratory efforts by Ilia Repin who visited France on a government-subsidized scholarship,1873-76. Repin (1844-1930) witnessed the first Impressionist Salon in 1874. The example of Monet, Renoir and their colleagues led him to try his hand on a major Impressionistic painting. Repin's Parisian Cafe, which he completed in 1875, was subjected to a barrage of criticism, for reasons we will discuss below, when news of his "impertinent" painting reached Russia.

The classic phase of Russian Impressionism commenced in 1887 when Valentin Serov, who had trained under Repin, painted a tremendous portrait in the Impressionist style, Girl with Peaches. The subject of Serov's work - one of the greatest of all Russian masterpieces - was the daughter of the railroad tycoon, Savva Mamontov, whose rural estate at Abramtsevo was the epicenter for trend-setting art and music in Russia.

Serov's success with Girl with Peaches (which is not included in the exhibition) led him to experiment further with Impressionist portraiture. In terms of his works on display in the exhibition, In Summer, painted in 1895, is the "show-stopper."  I had the great fortune to see this magnificent painting in an exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery in 2016.

Valentin Serov, In Summer, 1895

The protagonist of this enthralling work was Serov's wife, Olga, with whom he shared a profound and abiding love. Radiating vitality and inner beauty, Olga regards her husband with that look of conjugal intimacy which only deeply-engaged spouses truly know. In the background, the two Serov children play, highlighted by the glistening golden light of a summer's day. If it is possible for an artist to convey a sense of paradise, of heaven come to earth, Serov did exactly that.

A quiet joie de vivre infuses In Summer. A similar sense of well-being characterized the entire oeuvre of Konstantin Korovin, a close friend of Serev. Korovin (1861-1939) was the Russian artist most committed to Impressionism. He brought an Impressionist facility and freedom of brushstroke to every genre he set his hand: portraits, still-lives, domestic scenes and landscapes.

Korovin spent a considerable amount of time, living and working, in France. While his street scenes reveal the evidence of his study of Pissarro's handling of urban locales, Korovin painted bold statements of his own about the dynamism of city life.

Konstantin Korovin, Paris: Cafe de la Paix, 1906

Korovin's 1906 work, Paris: Cafe de la Paix is very different in approach from Repin's Parisian Cafe which was notable for its carefully delineated protagonists. Korovin's surging throngs, on the other hand, appear -at first - as faceless nonentities. Yet, so great is the sense of life, of movement, of elan vital in this remarkable picture, that the more we look at the tide of humanity, the more the humanity of each of the members of this crowd is indelibly established.

Korovin wasn't the only Russian artist to a paint superb Impressionist scenes set in Paris. Nicholas Tarkhoff was so highly successful that he settled in France, selling several works to the French government. But Russian artists who chose foreign subjects for their works or stayed too long away from their homeland risked triggering the ire of the Russian art establishment.

Two individuals towered over the cultural scene in Russia during the last half of the nineteenth century. Pavel Tretyakov and Vladimir Stasov were both high-minded and generous men, whose patronage was crucial for young artists. 

Tretyakov's vast expenditures on art laid the foundation for the great national collection of Russia, which bears his name. Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898) came from an Old Believer family, a Christian sect which had suffered terrible persecution under Peter the Great for refusing to follow his reformed version of the Christian liturgy. Tretyakov purchased Russian art, almost exclusively, thus proving that the Old Believers were patriotic subjects of the Tsar. 

Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) was an even more redoubtable figure. An ardent Russian patriot, he was unstinting in his support for artists and musicians, provided that they adhered to the style known as Russian Realism. The subject for a painting (or a symphony or opera) needed to have some connection to Russian history or culture. Those who strayed, as Repin did with his Parisian Cafe, mentioned above, soon received a rebuke from the "Master" as Stasov was called.

It is a measure of Stasov's authority, that Repin trimmed his sails and generally conformed to the nationalist agenda for Realist art upon his return home. Significantly, the Impressionist paintings which Repin created once he was back in Russia were for private viewing rather than public consumption.



Ilia Repin, Dragonfly, 1884

Dragonfly, Repin's portrait of his daughter, Vera, is a tour de force depiction of the swiftly-changing effects of light and shade as experienced during a playful romp in the fields. It validates Impressionism, in theory and in practice, for as Repin noted "without the freshness and power of impression, there can be no truly artistic work."

The criticism of Impressionist works like Dragonfly seems hard to fathom today. The negativity toward Impressionism in Russia, however, was motivated by serious concerns unrelated to matters of painterly style. 

Many Russians during the late 1800's felt that internal factors were destroying their nation from within. The list of problems was indeed long: the delay in freeing the serf class (only achieved in 1861), the failure to implement a national legislature, dreadful working conditions in the new industrial zones. The social crisis intensified after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by anarchists in 1881. 

The idea of patriotic writers like Stasov that art and music should promote Russian national unity was well-intended. But ultimately it was doomed to failure. The confrontation of Russian Realism vs. Impression is neatly contrasted in Stanislav Zhukovsky's Joyful May (1912). The dark, brooding interior of a Russian country estate, dominated by two aristocratic portraits, struggles unavailingly to keep the beckoning light of spring at bay.                                                              

Stanislav Zhukovsky, Joyful May, 1912

The reaction, verging on rejection, to Stasov's cultural nationalism, came with the young, radical artists of Russia's Silver Age, 1900-1914. As the names of Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and Kazimir Malevich figure prominently in the history of Modernism, is a bit of a surprise to read that these revolutionary figures started their careers as Impressionists. 

Yet, they did and this new insight helps explain their progress from painting works that compare favorably with van Gogh and Signac to "shock of the new" movements like Rayonism and Suprematism.

The course of the Russian "experiment with art" can be appreciated by comparing two paintings by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962). The first, Rowan: Panino near Viazma, 1907-08, is the introductory image of this review. It integrates a Fauvist color scheme with the hallmarks of classic Impressionism. 

Within five years, Goncharova had abandoned her accomplished Impressionist style for the Abstract methodology of Rayonism, as seen in The Forest (1913). Rayonism, initially set forth by Larionov, was based on scientific theories on how rays of light are reflected from objects in the viewer's field of vision. 

Rayonism, like most of the radical artistic ideologies of the pre-World War I era, came with its own manifesto. The strident words of the manifesto sought to explain - and justify - the "dissolution" of the objective reality on the artist's canvas. 

"We do not sense the object wit our eye, as it is depicted conventionally in pictures and as a result of following this or that device; in fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision."

Rayonoism sounded the death knell of Stasov's Russian Realism. It aimed to promote a new dynamism in art, clearing the way for freedom of thought and expression.

 Natalia Goncharova, The Forest (1913)

Goncharova made the bold leap to Rayonism, as can be seen in the glaring contrast of The Forest with her earlier Impressionist works. The trees in The Forest no longer bask calmly in the gentle sunshine, as in Rowan: Panino near Viazma. Instead, they assert themselves, propelling themselves upward from the forest floor, reaching toward a sky filled with rays of light and currents of air.

How much of Rayonism was understood by the people of Russia, - or even intellectuals like Goncharova - is a matter of speculation. What can be asserted is that Impression in Russia had made a crucial impact, enabling artists like Goncharova to depict the world before her, as she saw fit. 

And what Goncharova evoked in The Forest was momentous indeed. The trees in the painting are being buffeted by the wind and soon, in 1917, Russia itself would be shaken by a gale force storm, the wind of Revolution.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved   

Book cover, courtesy of Prestel Publishing. Images courtesy of the State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid 

Introductory Image:                                                                               Natalia Goncharova (Russian1881-1962Rowan: Panino near Viazma, 1907-1908. Oil on canvas: 99.4 x 69 cm. State Tretyakov Museum # 3860.

Isaac Levitan (Russian, 1860-1900) March, 1895. Oil on canvas: 61 x 76 cm. State Tretyakov Museum # 1489.

Valentin Serov (Russian1865-1911)In Summer, 1895. Oil on canvas: 74 x 94 cm. State Tretyakov Museum # 1523.

Konstantin Korovin (Russian1861-1939) Paris: Cafe de la Paix, 1906. Oil on canvas: 73.7 x 60.5 cm. State Tretyakov Museum # 9109.

Ilia Repin (Russian1844-1930Dragonfly: Portait of V.I. Repina, the Artist's Daughter, 1884. Oil on canvas: 111 x 84.4 cm. State Tretyakov Museum # 741.

Stanislav Zhukovsky (Polish, 1873-1944) Joyful May, 1912. Oil on canvas: 95.3 x 131.2 cm. State Tretyakov Museum # 1615.

Natalia Goncharova (Russian1881-1962The Forest (1913) Oil on canvas: 130 x 97 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza # 562 (1981.71)

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Art Eyewitness Review: Soutine / de Kooning at the Barnes Foundation


  Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint 

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
March 7- August 8, 2021

Reviewed by Ed Voves

February 1943 was hardly a promising time to mount an art exhibition. World War II had been raging since September 1939 and there was no end in sight. George Keller, the owner of the Bignou Gallery in New York City, persevered, opening A Selection of Paintings of the Twentieth Century on February 8th, 1943.

The Bignou exhibit was to prove to be a landmark event, though few could have realized it at the time. Two of the twentieth century's most controversial and talented painters were exhibited together for the first time: Chaïm Soutine and Willem de Kooning. It was the start of an artistic exchange which would influence the development of visual expression in the postwar world, especially in the United States.

March 2021 is not exactly a propitious moment for opening an international exhibition, either. Despite the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie in Paris are collaborating on an ambitious exhibit, Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint. This joint-effort opens first at the Barnes before moving on to the Musée de l’Orangerie in the autumn of 2021.

With 45 paintings on view, plus several historic documents from the archives of the Barnes Foundation, Soutine / de Kooning is a "focused" exhibition. Under normal circumstances, Claire Bernardi, Curator at the Musée d’Orsay, and Simonetta Fraquelli, Curator for the Barnes Foundation, would each be accorded well-deserved accolades and the exhibit would receive an honorable mention in the art press.

Given current difficulties of travel and transport due to Covid-19, Soutine / de Kooning deserves much more than a polite round of applause. A major collaborative undertaking, the exhibition involved levels of detailed planning and organization far in excess of pre-Covid days. 

Unknown Photographer, Chaïm Soutine, 1927

Kay Bell Reynal, Willem de Kooning, c. 1952.

Why such extraordinary efforts were devoted to an exhibition about Soutine and de Kooning, however, needs to be considered. The two artists never met and there are major differences in their approach to art. De Kooning was certainly an admirer of Soutine, declaring in 1977, "I’ve always been crazy about Soutine - all of his paintings." Beyond that rather tenuous bond of approval, there would seem to be little upon which to base a joint appraisal of their careers.

Enter Dr. Albert C. Barnes. 

In 1922, the founder of the Barnes Foundation visited Paris to purchase works of art for his growing collection. According to Barnes' recollections, he spotted a painting by Soutine in a Paris bistro. His agent, Paul Guillaume, directed him to Soutine's dealer, Leopold Zborowski. Barnes purchased fifty-two of Soutine's works from Zborowski and from Guillaume for a combined expenditure of 37,600 francs. 

The career of Chaïm Soutine was at a low ebb when Dr. Barnes put him at the top of his shopping list. Soutine was still reeling from the death of his great friend and mentor, Amadeo Modilgliani, in 1920. Born in 1893 in Belarus, Soutine had come to Paris just before the outbreak of World War I. Enduring extreme poverty, Soutine haunted the galleries of the Louvre, absorbing the lessons of the Old Masters, especially Rembrandt.


Chaïm Soutine, Side of Beef with a Calf’s Head, c. 1925 

Soutine devoted himself to perfecting his signature style, fluid brush strokes and bold coloration, which he applied to intriguing portraits of working-class Parisians and to landscapes which seem perpetually shattered by earthquakes.


 Chaïm Soutine, Landscape, c. 1922–24

Dr. Barnes' huge purchase established Soutine as a major figure in Modernism, though he remained an "outsider" on several counts. Soutine held himself aloof from Surrealism and, though devoted to the classical traditions of European art, he was not a protagonist in the "return to order" movement which followed World War I. As an Eastern European Jew, Soutine was vulnerable to the escalating danger of anti-Semitism. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Self-Portrait by Chaïm Soutine, 1918

Yet, Soutine's reputation was well-established by the late 1920's and Barnes added to his standing by comparing him to Cezanne and Van Gogh in his 1925 book, The Art in Painting. Barnes also resold some of his paintings by Soutine, but this actually worked to Soutine's benefit as his oeuvre now became available to a wider audience. One of those interested onlookers was Willem de Kooning (1904-1997).

The superb exhibition catalog contends that de Kooning likely viewed works by Soutine for the first time in 1930 at the just-opened Museum of Modern Art. He is definitely known to have examined works by Braque and Picasso at the MOMA exhibit, Painting in Paris, from American Collections, which displayed three works by Soutine.

De Kooning had come to the U.S. from the Netherlands as a stowaway on a cargo ship in 1926. He worked odd-jobs, just as Soutine had done in Paris. Whenever he could, de Kooning visited museums and galleries in New York City. Of special significance were his museum jaunts with Arshile Gorky, who befriended him as Modigliani had embraced Soutine.

Soutine's paintings were shown in the U.S. with increasing regularity during the 1930's. De Kooning, thus, had plenty of opportunity to study Soutine's oeuvre. Dr. Barnes' patronage of Soutine continued to be an important factor. Barnes helped to organize a solo show of Soutine at the Bignou Gallery which immediately followed the joint display of Soutine's and de Kooning's works in 1943, mentioned above.

During these years, de Kooning constantly sought to "find" himself as an artist. Unlike Soutine, he never created a signature style. More importantly, like Soutine, he refused to be defined by the prevailing trends and "isms" of the art scene.

“Art," de Kooning famously declared, "should not have to be a certain way.”

Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint brilliantly explores the effect of Soutine's art upon de Kooning. The exhibition surveys de Kooning's work in a general chronological timeline while Soutine's paintings are shown thematically, as they made an impact on de Kooning.

The "influence," be it noted, was not one directional. Soutine died in 1943, desperately ill and in grave danger of arrest by the Gestapo. It is almost certain that he never heard of de Kooning. Yet, Soutine's stature as an artist is heightened by the degree of appreciation which de Kooning accorded to his work. 

Unlike de Kooning, I was never "crazy about Soutine." To me, his portraits seemed to retreat to the shadows of a gallery when those by Modigliani were also on view. But when I spent time with the assembly of "everyday" people painted by Soutine in the present exhibit at the Barnes, I was greatly moved. 

Chaïm Soutine, The Little Pastry Cook, 1922–23 

Shy, anxious, tired, searching, apprehensive, Soutine's pastry chefs, waiters and altar boys came into focus. I finally "got" Soutine's message. 

The fact that there were no portraits by Modigliani on view did not make a difference. Rather, it was the removal of any kind of distracting context or commentary which was important. In each of these portraits, Soutine painted a person, not a type. To Parisian society, these were insignificant, "little" people. To Soutine, who had worked for a time as a "bell hop", they were people who mattered.

The key inspirational point of Soutine's portraits derives from his resolute emphasis on individuation. But these portraits are also complex, psychologically-layered works, not easily approached by another artist seeking to interpret them according to his own vision.

Willem de Kooning, Queen of Hearts, 1943–46

De Kooning labored during the 1940's on a series of strikingly-colored portraits, like Queen of Hearts, above. These works, however, have a curious feel of remaining uncompleted, of struggling to come into their own as individuals - and falling short of the mark. 

During the years immediately following World War II, de Kooning finally achieved success with Abstract Expressionist works like Excavation (1950). This secured him a place in the elite ranks of the New York School, but he almost immediately distanced himself from "Ab Ex" by returning to painting portraits - or rather to "anti-portraits."

These of course are de Kooning's Woman paintings from the early 1950's. These works alarmed, angered, baffled and bemused almost everybody during the "Fifties". The examples on view in the Barnes exhibition show that they have lost none of their unsettling qualities, over a half century later.

What was de Kooning aiming at with the Woman series? Was there a thematic progression in the paintings, a developing sequence of meaning or message? If so, it is hard to trace.

Willem de Kooning, Woman II, 1952

Woman II, painted in 1952, is almost a benign being, with an enigmatic smile and animated eyes, in comparison with the Gorgon-like frightfulness of Woman I. A year later, de Kooning raked-up the embers of ferocity and grotesque humor with Woman (1953). This was followed by an almost complete negation of humanity with Woman as Landscape (1954-55).

The critical debate on the Woman paintings continues, de Kooning having made a less-than definitive statement of his goals. The essays in the exhibition catalog treat this controversial phase of de Kooning's career with lucid insight. In terms of this review, it is enough to note that de Kooning's engagement with Soutine's oeuvre was at its peak during the years he devoted to the Woman series.

In 1950, MOMA mounted a major retrospective of Soutine's paintings, with many in the New York School quick to salute him as a pioneer of "Ab Ex". Two years later, de Kooning and his wife, Elaine, visited the Barnes Foundation, then located in the Philadelphia suburbs, to examine the Soutines which Dr. Barnes had purchased three decades earlier. De Kooning was struggling with Woman I and II. Studying Soutine's paintings at the Barnes led to a major breakthrough. De Kooning recalled this moment of inspiration:

I remember when I first saw the Soutines in the Barnes collection. In one room there were two long walls, one all Matisse and the other all Soutine - the larger paintings. With such bright and vivid colors, the Matisses had a light of their own, but the Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings - it was another kind of light.

"A glow that came from within" the paintings! What an absolutely marvelous image - verbal and visual!

This "glow" was something that de Kooning had to see for himself when he ventured to the Barnes Foundation to study the Soutines. This "glow" is certainly In de Kooning's works, too, especially in the abstract landscapes and "untitled" works which preoccupied him after he completed the Woman series in 1955. 

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XIII, 1975

The "glow from within" in de Kooning's paintings is almost impossible to appreciate when looking at a book illustration, even high quality color representations, as appear in the Soutine / de Kooning catalog. Seeing them, up-close and in-person, is a different story. I discovered this when I went to the massive, "once-in-a-lifetime" retrospective of de Kooning's art presented by MOMA in 2011. I was staggered by the experience, in a way that was - and is - difficult for me to articulate.

This brings us back to the importance of the Soutine / de Kooning exhibition. Not only does the exhibit illumine a little-studied chapter of art history, but it enables art lovers to join in the "conversation in paint" between Soutine and de Kooning. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
Gallery view of the Soutine / de Kooning exhibit,  
showing Willem de Kooning's Amityville, 1971

Without the opportunity to directly engage with art, the most vital link in the creative process is shattered. Thanks to the joint efforts of the curatorial teams of the Barnes and the Orangerie, that link has been reforged. 

As I walked around the galleries of Soutine / de Kooning at the Barnes, I could feel the "glow from within" being rekindled. It was there in the works of art by Soutine and de Kooning and, now, it was sparking to life in the minds and hearts of people like me, who were blessed with the opportunity to visit for the press preview.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
Willem de Kooning's Woman in Landscape III, 1968,
on view at the Soutine / de Kooning exhibition

This was a moment to savor, an opportunity to reflect on de Kooning's definition of the nature of art, one of the simplest, yet most profound, statements that I know of:

“What you do when you paint, you take a brush full of paint, get paint on the picture, and you have fate.”


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved   Gallery Photos: Copyright of Ed Voves                                                                                         

Introductory Image:                                                                                      Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Soutine / de Kooning exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, showing Willem de Kooning's Composition, 1955. Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas: 79 1/2 inches x 69 1/2 inches, Guggenheim Museum collection, New York.

Unknown Photographer. Chaïm Soutine with a chicken hanging in front of a broken brick wall, Le Blanc, France, 1927 Photo Courtesy Klüver/Martin Archive 

Kay Bell Reynal, Photographer. Willem de Kooning with a state of Woman I, c. 1952.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC Artwork © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Chaïm Soutine French, b. Russia (1893-1943) Side of Beef with a Calf’s Head, c. 1925. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. (92 x 73 cm)  Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection. Artwork © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS). New York Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Chaïm Soutine  (French, b. Russia, 1893-1943) Landscape, c. 1922–24. Oil on canvas, 36¼ × 259⁄16 in. (92 × 65 cm) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection. Artwork © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS). New York Image © Peter Willi / Bridgeman Images 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Self-Portrait by Chaïm Soutine, 1918. Oil on canvas: 21 1/2 inches x 18 inches. The Henry Rose Pearlman foundation on loan since 1976 to the Princeton University Art Museum.

Chaïm Soutine (French, b. Russia, 1893-1943) The Little Pastry Cook, 1922–23. Oil on canvas: 28¾ × 21¼ in. (73 × 54 cm) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection. Artwork © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS). New York, Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY  

Willem de Kooning (American, b. Netherlands, 1904-1997) Queen of Hearts, 1943–46. Oil and charcoal on fiberboard: 46⅛ × 27⅝ in. (117 × 70 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966. Artwork © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image by Lee Stalsworth, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Willem de Kooning (American, b. Netherlands, 1904-1997) Woman II, 1952. Oil on canvas: 59 × 43 in. (149.9 × 109.3 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1955. Artwork © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY 

Willem de Kooning (American, b. Netherlands, 1904-1997) Untitled XIII, 1975. Oil on canvas: 87¼ × 77 in. (221.6 × 195.6 cm) Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Katharine Ordway Collection Artwork © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  Image © Yale University Art Gallery, 2010

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Soutine / de Kooning exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, showing Willem de Kooning's Amityville, 1971. Oil on canvas: 80 x 70. inches. Private collection

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Soutine / de Kooning exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, showing Willem de Kooning's Woman in Landscape III, 1968: Oil on canvas: 63 1/2 x 42  1/2 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.