Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys

Chaim Soutine – ‘The Little Pastry Cook’ (detail) c1927


I visited The Courtauld Gallery last week, ‘killing time’ between a theatre matinee and evening visit to Cockpit Open Studios in Holborn.  I worked at The Courtauld Institute of Art for several years and often used to pop into the gallery but visit less often these days.

Somerset House is a gem – with its public spaces, courtyard fountains, bookshop, bars and restaurants – and the Courtauld Gallery has the most amazing collection of works from the Renaissance to the 20th century, including some of the best known and most popular Impressionist and Post-Impressionists masterpieces.

As well as its permanent collection, the Gallery regularly hosts special exhibitions in rooms 14 and 15 on the second floor. At present they are showing 21 portraits of cooks, waiters and bellboys by Russian artist Chaim Soutine who, like so many others of his generation, found his way to France in the 1920s and began working in Montparnasse, painting twilight figures from the Parisian underclass.

Not only are the characters of these workers and servants wonderfully observed – their personalities and idiosyncracies conveyed by their oddly twisted and stretched features – but the rich, painterly colours and brush strokes of their uniforms, set against the bold dark backdrops, are stunning and vibrant – a colourist’s dream.

This charming exhibition continues until 21 January 2018 so, if you are in Central London and have an hour or so free, I’d really recommend it.  The Fountain Courtyard at Somerset House looks beautiful at the moment (especially after dark) transformed into a ice skating rink for Christmas. (And to think it used to be a carpark for HMRC Tax Inspectorate when I was there 20 years ago.  Some things definitely change for the better ?).