"Madeleine Castaing" at the Met

On view at Gallery 901

1929, Chaim Soutine (French, born Lithuania, 1893–1943), Oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 28 7/8 in.

This is an exceptionally probing portrait of a very important person in Soutine's life during the 1920s and '30s. Madeleine Castaing (1894–1992) and her husband Marcellin were pillars of the artistic community of Montparnasse and became intimate friends of such avant-garde artists and writers as André Derain, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Blaise Cendrars, and especially Soutine. The Castaings led a very cosmopolitan lifestyle, and were especially interested in antiques and interior design. Madame Castaing herself was a prominent antiquaire and interior decorator in Paris for more than fifty years, and is credited with introducing to France a new fashion for English eighteenth-century furniture. In 1927, the Castaings met Chaim Soutine at the time of his first exhibition, and subsequently, between 1931 and 1935, he lived and worked during the summers at their mansion at Lèves near Chartres. Having admired his work, they offered him protection and support after the death of his dealer in 1932, and acquired a substantial collection of his works.

This portrait was commissioned by them around 1928, and required six sittings by Madame Castaing for its completion. Soutine captures her regal, commanding presence, yet also conveys a feeling of discomfort in the impatient expression on her face and the nervous movement of her hands. The brilliant red of her dress is particularly striking against the dark ocelot fur coat. As in so many of Soutine's portraits, her body is silhouetted against a neutral background and the proportions of her head and figure are slightly distorted. The artist introduced a lower vantage point, thus creating a greater distance between himself and the sitter. The portrait presented is that of someone who is sophisticated, chic, cosmopolitan, yet vulnerable, qualities enhanced by the expressionistic brushwork and color scheme.

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