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The Dignity of the Humble

from the magazine

The Dignity of the Humble

Chaim Soutine’s consoling portraiture Autumn 2018
Arts and Culture

So powerful are my childhood memories that I often feel that I have never quite grown up: that my adulthood is a sham or pretense, and that, really, I remain a little boy. It surprises me, then, that waiters (and others) take my orders seriously and obey them. How lowly, or desperate, they must be to do so! Surely, one day they will expose my fraud, dismiss me as a child, and refuse to serve me. Besides, I am prey to a nagging question: By what right do I, in theory no egalitarian, give orders and others follow them? Do they not secretly hate or despise me for it, or laugh at me behind my back?

And then, the question of the life of waiters arises. What happens when they leave work? Where is home for them, and how do they live? They are not well paid, they work long and inconvenient hours, and it is no longer possible in great cities to find cheap housing. The policeman’s lot is not a happy one, it says in The Pirates of Penzance; can the lot of the waiter be otherwise?

It is therefore important not to take waiters—those who serve you and who are, in a sense, at your mercy—for granted, or to treat them as if they were merely animated delivery systems for what you want. It is easy to do this, especially when in lively company. Plates and dishes appear before you as if by their own volition; you do not notice who placed them there.

Increasingly with age (for earlier in my life, I did take service more for granted), I find myself wondering about waiters’ lives. Even now, though, I have relapses: as when, for example, I was on a bus in the little English town where I live, and a waiter from one of the local Indian restaurants that I patronize sat down near me—in civilian clothes, as it were. I was almost outraged. So he had a life outside the restaurant, after all, and did not spend 24 hours of every day in it! In fact, his life must have been remarkable, far from easy, and even courageous. What must it be like to come from Bangladesh to England, perhaps de facto indentured, and certainly obligated, to a restaurant owner in a small market town, and initially, at any rate, reside in some hostel or cheap shared lodgings in an alien environment? The waiters in the several Indian restaurants in the town, most of whom know me, do not reside there but in the nearest large city, with its ghetto-like community of fellow countrymen, and commute daily. Here are life stories worth investigating: though so far, at any rate, I have not plucked up the courage to do so, for fear of appearing intrusive, prurient, or—even worse—condescending.

The quarter of Paris where my wife and I rent a small apartment is like a village: one soon gets to know, and be recognized by, the local merchants—the baker, fishmonger, fruiterer, butcher, bookseller, newspaper-stand holder, and so on. We are known also at the local brasserie, where we observe with interest the turnover in staff: for example, the waiter approaching middle age, of Algerian origin, whose alcoholism made him too unreliable to continue (though he was excellent when he turned up), and the new Vietnamese waiter, who had to be broken of the habit of wildly running up and down in pursuit and fulfillment of orders, as he might do in a restaurant back East.

We have known the waiter Monsieur L, a stalwart of the brasserie, for several years. He has told us of his latest travails each time we come: his difficulty finding somewhere affordable to live, near enough for him to arrive on time for work (and get home reasonably quickly, well after midnight); his divorce; his feckless children, who will neither study nor work, members of une génération de merde, as he calls it; and his new companion, with whom he has been able to spend so little time that he decided to leave the brasserie and find less well-paid work elsewhere, with more free time. He has always spoken with good humor of his troubles, as matters almost of comedy, though we have sensed the hardship and suffering beneath the laughter. We made a point of going to the brasserie on his last night; as we left, he embraced us. I felt this to be a great and sincere compliment from someone who must have witnessed us many times fling away on an hour or two’s passing pleasure sums that would have been significant to him. It is not inequality that enrages people, but indifference or disdain toward them as human beings.

The brasserie manager confides in us a little, also. What he likes on his holidays, he says, is to get away from other people, to somewhere where they can ask him nothing, complain about nothing, demand nothing. But his current—and perpetual—problem is finding staff. A notice is always displayed on the brasserie window: Cherchons serveur, serveuse—we are looking for a waiter, waitress. “The problem,” he says, “is that no one wants to work these days. When the young come, they say they can’t work at night, or on the weekends, or for too long. They don’t want to be told what to do and they expect to be paid a lot straightaway, as if they were at the top rather than the bottom.”

I know what he means but secretly think, “Who wants to work long hours for little pay?” Young people are better educated these days, or at least educated for longer, and it is hardly surprising, looking at the way that waiters must work, that the low wages do not attract the young much. They dream of something else.

In London recently, the Courtauld Gallery held an exhibition of Chaim Soutine’s portraits of cooks, maids, and bellboys, painted mainly in the 1920s. As soon as I spotted the notice, I determined to see it.

Born in 1893 to poor parents in Lithuania, Soutine studied art in Vilnius, the capital of the Baltic province of the then–Russian Empire. As soon as he was able, Soutine decamped to Paris, the artistic capital of the Western world, where he lived, impoverished, in avant-garde artistic circles. He met Amadeo Modigliani, who became his mentor and critic.

Soutine’s ascent to wealth was sudden, thanks to the great American collector Albert Barnes, of Philadelphia. Barnes saw Soutine’s first picture of a cook and bought it—and then bought 50 others. As a result, the demand for, and price of, Soutine’s paintings rose, so that for the first time he was beyond the reach of material anxiety. He began to inhabit the world of grand hotels and luxurious restaurants, but his experience of poverty was too deep and prolonged for him ever to forget it. Moreover, monetary ease did not altogether bring him physical comfort, for he suffered from gastric ulceration, a condition that today would most likely have been cured by antibiotics, but in those days was incurable. Complacent enjoyment of his good fortune (a necessary condition of which, it is true, was his talent and long devotion to his art) was therefore never likely in his case, and, in fact, his gastric ulceration eventually killed him—or rather, the emergency operation that he underwent for it in 1943 did. By then, he was living semi-clandestinely in occupied France, as the worst category of Jew in the Occupier’s and Vichy’s mind: those who were not born in France but came from the East. Soutine not only observed misfortune: he lived it.

Was Soutine’s preoccupation with chefs, waiters, and bellboys a real and true aspect of his life, or merely the artifact of a small but intense exhibition that brings together many of his portraits of that caste, to the exclusion of other subjects that he painted, turning him almost into what the French call an obsedé, a person obsessed? The pictures had never been exhibited together before, and they were painted at different times (though their precise dating is unknown). Yet it is hard to think of another distinguished painter of whose work a similar exhibition could be mounted.

There was Velázquez, of course, with his portraits of bufones, the achondroplastic dwarves who served as jesters at the Spanish court. These are magnificent paintings, and no one (I imagine) who has stood before them in the Prado in Madrid could ever again unthinkingly laugh, or even laugh guiltily, at the antics of such dwarves under a circus tent, or take their small stature as a sign of deficient humanity. But, though a moral education as well as an aesthetic triumph, the portraits are few in number, insufficient to fill an exhibition such as Soutine’s.

Then there was Chardin, who painted servants, and Hogarth, who rendered a deeply sensitive collective portrait of his own servants, painted with such tenderness for the individuals that it casts light on the savagery with which he painted satirical scenes—for though his servants were no doubt poor, he depicts them as persons of sensibility and refinement, which, in turn, suggests that poverty and degradation are not the same thing, that the difference between Beer Street and Gin Lane is a real one, fundamentally moral in character. But again, these works are too few to make an exhibition.

Soutine’s portraits were painted mainly in the Roaring Twenties, when the French luxury-services industry was in full expansion. It was not to the patrons of the services that Soutine turned for a subject, but to those who provided them. This approach does credit to his humanity, for it would have been easy to overlook the workers in the glamour of those times, concentrating on the celebrated. Though his style seems to me to owe more to, or have more in common with, the German expressionists, he is not presenting to us, at least not directly, a fierce criticism of the upper echelons of a decadent, callous social order; he is instead showing us the humanity of the relatively lowly and subordinate, which is always there but which the more highly placed tend either thoughtlessly or purposefully to put out of their minds. You can observe this humanity and inhumanity every day of every week of every month of every year in restaurants, hotels, and kindred places around the world.

These pictures, for me, are a protest against disregard, in some ways worse than deliberate cruelty: for at least deliberate cruelty entails recognition of the victim’s existence. But of course, they would not work as a protest unless they were of high artistic quality. The road to kitsch is paved with good intentions. Soutine was a great artist, and one of the shrewdest remarks made about him was from Willem de Kooning (an artist whom I do not admire): “Soutine distorted the pictures but not the people. . . . The painting is the painting, but he never destroyed the people.” Or again, as the authors of the catalogue raisonée of his work put it: “Even the distortions and exaggerations of facial features and the shiftings and dislocations of body parts do not destroy the essential recognition in each painting of a certain person and a reality specific to him or her.” His seeming distortions somehow—the genius is in the how—distill the character and individuality of the person he is painting, so that he or she becomes more recognizable than if the picture were a mere photograph.

 “The Little Pastry Cook,”, 1922 (MUSEE DE L’ORANGERIE, PARIS, FRANCE / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

Am I projecting onto Soutine thoughts and feelings that he did not have? He was notoriously unforthcoming about his work; he gave his pictures no titles, leaving that to his dealers or to their eventual purchasers; often, he did not even sign them. How he came to paint this collection of cooks, waiters, and bellboys is unknown. One cannot even say for certain that the portraits of these people were actually what they appeared to be. Only in one case, the first of the series, is the identity of the sitter, a pastry chef, known for certain. He survived his portrait by 50 years, and recounted how Soutine, then impoverished himself, offered him the choice of a few sous or the painting as payment for his time. He chose the sous, to his ultimate chagrin, because at the time Soutine was unknown and the painting seemed to its subject to be terribly bad. If the cook had chosen otherwise, he would have died a millionaire.

It is unlikely that Soutine painted his sitters in situ, for he was a notoriously messy worker and could not have set up temporary studios in the establishments where they toiled without stirring managerial protest. In theory, therefore, he could have dressed up models in the uniforms of chefs, waiters, bellboys, and chambermaids, but I doubt that this happened. Would it make any difference to the value of the work—or rather, to our assessment of the value of the work—if this is what he did? After all, the paintings as physical objects would be the same—as beautiful, or as lacking in beauty, as before. On the other hand, what I think I see in them would have been mere playacting, an illusion.

What is it, then, that I see, or think that I see, in these portraits? It is the humanity, the individuality, of the humble, of people (now long dead) whose entire working lives were likely spent at the beck and call of others: for being a chambermaid or a bellboy, say, was seldom the first step in a steep upward career trajectory culminating in a glorious summit. Their reward would be a nod of acknowledgment, a few fleeting thanks, perhaps, and possibly an occasional generous tip. Mostly, they would make beds, serve food, and carry luggage for people who would scarcely notice that things did not just happen without human agency. Yet they were every bit as human as those for whom they performed these services.

That they bear no names, and nothing to tie them to a particular time or place might seem at first to be a manifestation of that very disdain against which these pictures seem to me a clarion call. But though the sitters might appear by their uniforms to be reduced by the painter to the status of their function, so profound and so various are their expressions, and so intelligent the faces, that they should teach us not to disregard, much less dismiss, those unknown to us merely because they are unknown to us. Their appearances are a lesson in what one might call existential equality: that each person is due our consideration, be his position in life ever so humble, merely by virtue of the fact that he or she is, like us, a thinking, feeling, active being. (Soutine must have known that it was never going to be cooks, waiters, bellboys, and chambermaids who would admire his paintings.) In my experience, it is small acts of disdain, memory of which can accumulate in the mind, rather than more abstract injustices, that drive men to fury and despair; and it is precisely the collectivist ideologies that refuse to acknowledge human individuality and that deny the humanity of whole categories of people, that led to the horrors of the half-century in which Soutine lived, and of which he was himself ultimately a victim.

What, then, are the expressions of Soutine’s sitters? They range widely, but I do not think that any one of them appears happy. Soutine was no sentimentalist. He had experienced the hardness of life for too long to be that: not for him the sentimental Victorian genre scenes of contented servants. The nearest that any of his sitters can be said to come to happiness is a certain satisfaction in the insolence that a few express, both facially and bodily, a self-assertiveness in the very act of taking orders. But melancholy, resignation, fear, and exhaustion are to be seen in them, too. One of the most beautiful—and these pictures move by their beauty as much as by their meaning—is of a young valet, no more than a tender adolescent, who has a squint. One feels the hard and probably unrewarding life that he has before him, through no fault of his own; but Soutine nevertheless endows him with a kind of sacred fire, a tiny scarlet light, a mere dot, that shines from his dark eye that looks straight ahead at the viewer.

Perhaps I am wrong in ascribing my own reactions to Soutine’s portraits of servants to the artist himself. Perhaps it is wrong to ascribe any didactic purpose to art, as I have just done (though only in this instance, for I would not do it in all instances). But art is not mere ornament; it is, or can be, a comment on human life in the world, including celebration of that life. Soutine’s pictures are instinct with the inescapable tragic dimension of life, the inescapability being its consolation.

Top Photo: Born in 1893 in Lithuania, Soutine lived and worked in Paris and painted most of his portraits there. (ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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