On Wednesday 25th October 2017, the Courtauld welcomed a group of young people, from state schools and colleges across London, to take part in an Insights into Art History workshop focusing on portraits by the artist Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943). The Insights into Art History day tied in with the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys.
Art historian Dr Julian Freeman gave the students an introduction to Chaïm Soutine, a Russian migrant working in Paris during the early twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s Soutine produced striking portraits of people working in restaurants and hotels around the French capital.
In the Courtauld Gallery, we looked at portraits from the permanent collection. A painting that caught our attention was Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The group commented on the barmaid’s direct and powerful stance, unusual at the time of painting in 1882. By discussing composition and brushwork we explored how Manet’s artistic decisions have the power to alter how we perceive the barmaid. We also discussed Vincent Van Gogh’s expressive use of colour in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear of 1889.
Upstairs in the exhibition, we sketched the waiters, cooks and bellboys who feature in Soutine’s vibrant paintings. We were particularly drawn to the subject’s crumpled uniforms, because of the vivid tonalities of the red, blue and white brushstrokes.
In a similar way to Manet, Soutine painted his subjects with powerful stances and vulnerable facial expressions. We learnt that Soutine would rework his paintings many times, repainting the same person until he was completely happy with how they were represented. You can find out more about Soutine in our new Artist and Sitter learning resource.
Back in the seminar room, students were able to produce portraits from life, like Soutine did. Ian, a security guard at the Courtauld, very kindly agreed to be the subject of the students’ sketches and paintings. Led by the artist and art historian, Matthew Krishanu, we learnt new experimental drawings and painting techniques which the students used in their own contemporary responses to Soutine’s work.
The first exercise involved making quick charcoal sketches of Ian, who sat on a stool in front of a blue and red backdrop. Matthew showed us how to use the side of the charcoal stick to create background shading. Then, by rubbing out small areas to create light, and layering darker lines to create shadow, the portraits of Ian really came to life.
We then introduced colour into our portrait studies by experimenting with layering oil pastel on coloured paper:
For the remaining few hours of the workshop the students produced a portrait of Ian using acrylic paint on canvas board. A light wash of one colour was used as the grounding for the paintings. After allowing time for drying, layers of acrylic paint in an array of colours were applied to the canvas.
We were also shown how to scratch paint away from the surface, and how to use different brushes for a ‘scumbling’ textured effect.
All of the portraits produced brilliantly captured Ian’s character through composition and brushwork. By exploring Soutine’s portraits and his painterly techniques, the students were able to look closely at the sitter to create their own artworks filled with energy and attention to detail.
Thank you to Matthew, Julian and Ian for such a fantastic workshop!
Our next Insights into Art History workshop Edgar Degas: Capturing Movement takes place on Saturday 18th November.