Chaim Soutine was hungry. This he felt as he made his way through the crowded damp streets in the early afternoon, head down, hands jammed deep into the pockets of his thick dirty coat, past newspaper boys shouting out headlines from Paris-Soir and L’Intran, kiosks pasted over with brightly colored advertisements urging him to take Vittel for the kidneys and Vichy for the liver. There on the corner was a stout woman selling apples out of a wheelbarrow, and a fishwife, loudly, hoarsely, hawking her wares. He passed windows filled with baskets of hot loaves and pyramids of butter, skinned rabbits hanging from hooks and mountains of cheese. The smell of fried potatoes and sausages laced the air.
Soutine’s hunger was so strong and palpable it was as if another person were walking along the sidewalk with him, garrulous and insistent, a far more persuasive conversationalist than he. He could feel its presence, restless, impatient, ready to pounce. He felt so hungry so much of the time that he could no longer tell the difference between that and the ulcer fisting up his insides. He wondered if he waited long enough whether the hunger or the ulcer, or both, perhaps, would eat him alive. He thought, absentmindedly, about what that would look like, his thick, viscous innards wrapping around like a snake, squeezing the life out of him.
He had options. He could go to his dealer Zborowski and beg for a loan. He could go into La Rotonde and order a 20-centime café-crème and load up on bread for free. The owner would probably even let him order choucroute on credit, laying a thick hand on his shoulder as he used to do in the years before the war, telling him not to worry, he shouldn’t worry, he could paint something, he could pay him back that way, canvases were better than francs anyway, he would laugh and say.
But Soutine thought about what the café would be like inside, its smoky warmth, all those bodies leaning into each other, talking, arguing, laughing. The women would take in his ratty, paint-splattered trousers, the knots plaguing his hair, his teeth, greenish at the gums; he would feel their disapproving eyes on him, no matter where he turned.
It had been a different story before Modigliani had died. Modi had changed everything. He used to weave in between the crowded tables at La Rotonde, wearing that ridiculous red scarf knotted at his neck, clutching his canvases rolled up in newspaper, calling out in a mournful tone, “Je suis Modigliani, Juif, Jew,” selling his paintings for five francs a piece. But Modi wasn’t there anymore, pulling him in his wake, Modi would never be there again, and Soutine tipped his hat down lower over his eyes, pulled his worn jacket tighter.
Besides, how could he eat now? The boy was coming. He had work to do.
As Soutine entered his apartment building, the stale smell from the workman’s café downstairs grew fainter and the clamor of the bal musette in the square dropped off. He opened his apartment door and was greeted by the sharp scent of turpentine and linseed oil. Inside, there was a narrow sofa, a chair big enough to sleep in, and canvases everywhere: up on the walls, leaning against the sofa, stacked high like towers. Soutine didn’t bother to roll up his shirtsleeves before considering the new one. It was a little over four feet high, less than two feet wide. The boy in red filled the frame.
He had been concentrating on the landscape of the face as of late, and the deepness of the eyes, the color and the thickness of the strokes pleased him. But the lips were too symmetrical and too wide, the lips all wrong. Out came the turpentine, off came the paint, and it wasn’t long before Soutine saw sky emerge beneath the paint he had removed, wisps of gray that had been there for decades.
The canvas was more than a hundred years old, one of a half-a-dozen old landscapes he’d bought at the Marché aux Puces last month for a song. Soutine preferred these old paintings. The canvas was heavier. The paint went on more smoothly. He could feel his brush glide. He liked, too, the idea of painting over someone else’s work; it gave him something to answer to, contradict, live up to. It gave him a perverse amount of pride. The way he saw it, if you’re vandalizing another artist, the result better be good.
And now he was painting again, a mass of brushes in his right hand, applying the paint with his left, smearing, dabbing, brushing it on. Even as he worked on the cheek, he let the paint drip, he let it splatter. Once he had dipped a brush onto the palette, picking up a color, he would toss it on the floor. Soon a carpet of brushes lay at his feet, discarded and forgotten.
He was working in this fashion, sculpting the lips with his finger, incising the cheek with the straight edge of the palette knife, when he heard breathing behind him.
“What?” he said. He didn’t bother to turn around.
“Monsieur Soutine?” A voice deeper than he’d remembered, but unmistakably the same.
“Come in, come in already; you’re late.”
“You’re almost done,” the boy said, peering to look at the canvas, smoothing out his red jacket over his hips. His left sleeve was dirtied by tobacco. The tarnished buttons glinted gold in the afternoon light.
“How would you know?” Soutine growled, and motioned for the boy to take his place by his right side.
Today he would finish the hands. He took great pleasure in painting hands, often saving them for last. Soutine knew he was able to bestow upon them a voluptuousness of expression and movement that his faces often lacked. And that was what he had first noticed, when he spotted the boy in front of the Hôtel de Crillon more than two months ago—not the tired look in his eyes, the slope of his body as if he were sixty-nine years old and not nineteen—but the gracefulness of his fingers as he leaned against the wall, taking match to flint and cupping his lighted cigarette as if he and his hands were made for better things.
Soon Soutine was watching the boy so closely that he ceased to be a boy but a field of colors, a block of shadows and intersecting shapes and lines. With his thumb, he smeared cadmium red into the background. It was garish and bright and, well, alive, and Soutine knew that for just one moment what he was doing was right.
An hour passed. Soutine concentrated on the slap of paint on canvas, the swirl and lines that slowly gave rise to bone, knuckles, skin. A thick knot of clouds crept by his window, darkening the sky, darkening his light, but Soutine kept working. Soon the boy’s pose stiffened, but he didn’t complain, didn’t utter a word, and it was partly in appreciation for his work, partly because the sky had lost any memory of day that Soutine found himself telling the boy they were done.
The boy nodded, stretched out his mouth like a cat. He took off his jacket. Moons of sweat ringed his armpits. Looking at them Soutine realized he too was drenched, but he felt strangely calm. He would go out in a little bit, after the boy had left, stop by La Rotonde. He would get himself a decent meal, take some of that crusty hot bread.
Soutine reached into a blue enamel box on the mantle, emptied it of some coins, and paid the boy. He felt under the bed for the bottle of wine he kept for such occasions, poured a thumbful in a tin cup for the boy, filled another cup for himself. “L’chaim,” he said, and he couldn’t help but smile.
But the boy was eyeing at the canvas. “What?” Soutine said. “What?”
The boy shook his head.
“Nothing?” Soutine said. No one should see his paintings while they were in progress. Most of the time, he couldn’t stand looking at them himself. “I don’t believe you.”
The boy glanced at the painter. “It,” he began. “It doesn’t look like me.”
Soutine turned back to the painting. The eyes on the canvas were dark and glossy and bottomless, the right measurably larger than the left, the nose long and crooked, the mouth a reddish pinhole above the triangle of a chin. He looked back at the boy and was struck by the fullness of his lips, the ridges of his tobacco-stained teeth, the light in his eyes.
“You’re right,” Soutine said and he shrugged. “The painting is better.”
Ellen Umansky is the author of the novel The Fortunate Ones, about two women and the Soutine painting stolen from them both. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications including Slate, The New York Times, Tablet, and the short-story anthology Lost Tribe.
“Soutine” appears in our issue, Physics (Summer 2017)