The Chicken, c. 1926
Chaïm Soutine, French, born Russia (present-day Belarus), 1893–1943
Oil on canvas
40 1/4 × 29 15/16 in. (102.2 × 76.1 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown in honor of John A. and Audrey Jones Beck
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Understanding Relationships and Systems
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- The student will be able to use the artwork to investigate how organisms respond to their environment.
- Investigate how organisms respond to external stimuli found in the environment
- Use models to represent aspects of the natural world, such as human body systems
Connecting to the Work of Art
Amongst smeared brushstrokes of dark organic hues, the bright body of a fowl emerges in this painting by artist Chaïm Soutine. Dangling from its right ankle, the bird’s body is splayed, each limb being pulled down by its own weight. Thick, overlapping strokes relay the frenzy of the bird’s vigorous movement. While at first glance it seems as if the chicken is struggling against death, Soutine's painting is a celebration of the animal and flesh, a theme that allowed him to explore his obsessions with life and death.
Soutine was highly influenced by the works of the Old Masters and focused his attention on still-lifes, in particular those with carcasses of beef and poultry. Using thick, layered, frantic brushstrokes and a mix of dark and bright colors, Soutine’s depictions of life, death, and decay are brooding and whimsically visceral reflections of life’s struggles and the horrors of war. His application of paint and choice of subject matter bridged the gap between more traditional methods and the developing Abstract Expressionism.
This dead creature, a provider of life, is a bloody lump that is rendered fascinatingly beautiful by Soutine's brutal, swirling, painterly brushstrokes. His ferocious brushstrokes appear as if he is attacking the canvas with his paintbrush. This forceful style of painting heightens the sense of drama and spectacle. His Expressionist style coupled with his palette of seemingly jarring and garish colors was unique in Paris at the time he was working.
Soutine, who was raised in a Jewish household in Lithuania, struggled with poverty and hunger from childhood into early adulthood when he lived quite meagerly as a student in Paris during WWI. Food within Jewish culture plays an important role in both secular and religious rituals. Reflecting this, his paintings become a celebration and exploration of food in a more universal sense. While the chicken struggles against life and death, the artist also explores the chicken as nourishment and a source of food. Soutine places worth on the chicken through his choice to paint the chicken on a large scale. He also emphasizes the chicken through the close cropping of the composition and the hazy, nondescript background. While the abstraction of the chicken’s image prevents a life-like image of the foul, the motion and emotion crafted through color and brushstroke honors the roles of food in society and in Soutine’s own life as both nourishment and a symbol of culture.
Considering his childhood shortage of food, this painting is a celebration of someone finally able to afford luxuries like meat on a regular basis. Despite the abstract nature of this work, the artist was able to afford to purchase meat so that he could paint from real-life. The artist would hang up a piece of meat in his studio and, regardless of the annoyance of his neighbors and its attraction of flies, would leave the meat on the wall as he studied and painted it. His obsessions with life and death allowed him to slowly observe and record the decaying meat while celebrating it through paint.
- Describe the painting. Be sure to notice color, brushstroke and composition. What do you think the subject matter is? Use evidence from the painting to backup your answer.
- This work of art is titled The Chicken. Were you able to identify the animal as a chicken? What characteristic of chicken that you already knew is present in the painting?
- How would you describe the mood of this work? What elements in the work add to the mood?
- Could the word “jarring” be used to describe the tone of this work? Explain your answer. What other words could be used to describe the tone of this work?
- How does the artist create motion in the painting? Do you get the sense that the chicken is moving or still? Explain your answer using elements from the work.
- Describe what atmosphere the thick brushstrokes add to the painting? How would this work be different in the artist used tiny, precise brushstrokes to create a more realistic version of a chicken?
- Consider the background. How does it relate to the chicken? How does the abstracted background add a sense of mystery to the work?
- Does the placement of the chicken remind you of anything?
- How would this work be different if you could make out what was in the background? What if the composition was not as cropped?
- Did you expect the mood of this work to contain more anxiety?
- Consider that artists make very conscious choices. What theory could you make about why the background is blue? What associations do we have with the color blue?
- Some would say that the colors in the painting are jarring. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- The artist, Chaim Soutine, grew up in a Jewish household where food was scarce but still an important part of their traditional religious rituals. How does knowing about this relationship with food in Soutine’s childhood change how we see this work?
- This work could be viewed as a celebration of roles of food in society, and in Soutine’s own life, as both nourishment and a symbol of culture. Do you agree with this statement? Justify your answer using elements from the painting.
- What you know about the world in the early 1900s that could affect our interpretation of The Chicken?
Connecting to the Classroom
- Write down several things that you see in this painting.
- Have you ever wondered how you are able to understand what you see?
- How do you think you are able to see this painting?
- Light bounces off the painting, into your eye and off your retina. That sensory input travels along the optic nerve to your brain. Receptors in the retina fire and send messages along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe of the brain.
- When the neurons in the occipital lobe get the message, they send further messages to other parts of the brain. A stimulus is a form of energy that your nervous system converts into messages. Your brain cells monitor and respond to these messages.
- Each stimulus is different from another, so your brain is able to recognize it, and based on past experiences, your brain knows what to do with it. This is called a response.
- This is what your brain is doing when viewing this painting.
- Now, what is your brain doing to recognize this? What type of energy are our nerves sensing? And what is that called? (Light energy is stimulating your brain through a stimulus. It is converted into a message that your brain cells detect, and because you have seen a chicken before, the image looks like a chicken!)
- Explain the process by which a person views works of art and how that view is interpreted by the brain. Research the process by which sensory input (the work of art) travels, using scientific vocabulary.
- (Possible answer: the visual pathway. Axons from ganglion cells in the retina travel in the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus. Here they synapse with other neurons, whose axons go to neurons in the visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain.)
- In groups, create a role-play demonstrating the process above.
Subject Matter Connection
When students start making connections between things that they know and things that they are learning, they attain the information better. There is some connection between everything in the world; these are the relationships we want our students to begin to realize and understand.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.