L’américaine doit être plus grande… (The American woman must be bigger…), between 1930 and 1937
Louis Soutter studied fine art in Geneva and Paris before setting out for New York, where he planned to set up an art and interior design studio. He eventually settled in Colorado Springs and married a woman named Madge Fursman. Life in America seemed to suit him, and he was soon appointed head of the Fine Arts department at Colorado College. However, the first signs of depression appeared in 1902, and in January the following year Madge filed for divorce, citing his abusive behaviour. Soutter returned to Switzerland for good in the February, marking a long downwards spiral as he broke with his family, isolated himself socially, and got into serious debt. In 1923, he was unwillingly interned in an asylum for the elderly in Ballaigues, a village in the mountains north-west of Lausanne.
It is not known exactly what triggered the return of traumatic memories of his time in America. It may have been meeting in 1933 the American collector Marguerite Tjader Harris, who first brought his drawings to New York. It could also have been contact with Le Corbusier, a distant cousin, who went on to organise Soutter’s first American exhibition in 1936, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. Either way, it was a good thirty years since Soutter had last seen Madge when he produced this portrait – one of a handful in colour from his so-called Mannerist period. Over the years, the young woman he had fallen in love with when they were both studying the violin with the celebrated virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels had turned into a monstrously egocentric, authoritarian shrew of a wife. He claimed she never forgave him for not being strong enough to give her a child: “My wife had such splendid teeth! Every time she laughed, it was an affront to me!”
Hartwig Fischer (ed.), Louis Soutter (1871-1942), exh. cat. Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, Collection de l’art brut, Ostfildern-Ruit, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2002.
Michel Thévoz, Louis Soutter. Catalogue de l’œuvre, Lausanne, L’Âge d’Homme, Zurich/Lausanne, Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA), 1976: n. 2336.
Michel Thévoz, Louis Soutter ou l’écriture du désir, Lausanne, L’Âge d’Homme, Zurich/Lausanne, Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA), 1974.