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Louis Soutter

Swiss, 19th-20th century.
Born 1871, Moeges, Switzerland; died 1942, Ballaigues, Switzerland.


A first cousin of the modernist architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), Louis Soutter created a varied and technically sophisticated body of work. He is best known for his drawings and paintings on paper or cardboard.

Soutter’s father was a pharmacist; his mother taught singing at a music school. The family lived in Morges, in the French-speaking region of southern Switzerland. As a member of a musical family, Soutter learned to play the violin, and his brother and sister were also musicians.

Soutter began his university studies in the engineering field, and then switched to architecture. In 1892, he moved to Brussels, where he became a student of the violinist Eugène Ysaye. At that time, art nouveau and symbolism were among the strong stylistic currents influencing design, visual art, literature and the theater in Europe. Soutter was exposed to those artistic tendencies in the Belgian capital, where he met Madge Fursman, an American student of Ysaye’s who was also a singer and would become his wife. After spending time together back in Switzerland, then in Paris (in both places, Soutter formally studied art), the young couple moved to the United States. In 1897, Soutter and his wife settled in Madge’s hometown, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

There, Soutter gave violin and drawing lessons, and eventually became the head of the fine arts department at Colorado College. He was known for going out with his students to examine the unusual rock formations in the nearby Garden of the Gods nature park. Louis and Madge divorced in 1903. In later years, Soutter would tell his friends that his wife had been a demanding spouse and had made him feel depressed.

Back in Switzerland, living with his family and performing as an orchestral musician or as an accompanist for silent movies, Soutter behaved eccentrically and became something of a drain on his family with his penchant for a dandy’s expensive, flashy clothes and his vagabond ways. By 1923, Soutter had been installed by the city authorities of Morges, against his will, at a retirement home in the Jura Mountains, where he played his violin and began to create the large body of artwork for which he is known today.

At the retirement home, in his early fifties, Soutter stopped making the academic art he had produced in the past and started making pencil or ink drawings on used envelopes or scraps of wrapping paper and in school notebooks. He depicted grotesque human faces and groups of figures in dense compositions, trees with thickets of cross-hatching and other mannered images. After his cousin, Le Corbusier, and certain other well-known artists and writers became aware of his art-making, they provided Soutter with good-quality paper and ink, and helped publicize his artistic efforts. As he aged and felt more isolated, Soutter ate little and lived ascetically. He became thin and weak. Arthritis set in, and he gave up using drawing tools and instead began to dip his fingers directly in ink or gouache and make bold, semi-abstract pictures of primordial-looking, sometimes tortured figures reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings.

Strictly speaking, Soutter was not a completely self-taught artist whose profile fits Jean Dubuffet’s classic description of an art-maker who lived and/or created his art primarily outside the social-cultural mainstream. Nevertheless, as Michel Thévoz, a former director of the Collection de l’Art Brut museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, has written, even if Soutter “did not escape” influences from that mainstream, his “relationship to tradition” and the “artistic context” his work engendered may be seen as “undeniably looser than [those] of any other socially integrated artist.” Today, Soutter’s hallucinatory compositions find affinities with such modern art forms as gestural abstract-expressionism and the American experiments in human-psyche-mining surrealism that preceded the ab-ex movement of the 1940s and 1950s, and in so-called neo-expressionist paintings of the 1980s, in which artists combined abstract and figurative elements in psychologically charged compositions.

- Edward M. Gómez


Selected Solo Exhibitions

2012, Les primitifs sont petits: Cahiers de Louis Soutter, 1923-1930, Musée Fenaille, Rodez (France)

2012, Louis Soutter: Le tremblement de la modernité, La Maison Rouge/Fondation Antoine de Galbert, Paris

2012, Louis Soutter: Drawings, Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris

2003, Louis Soutter et les modernes, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel

1961, Louis Soutter: Témoignages de René Auberjonois et de Le Corbusier, Musée Cantonnal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne

Selected Exhibitions


2006, Inner Worlds Outside, traveling exhibition, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundacíon "La Caixa," Madrid; WhiteChapel Gallery, London; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

2005, Dubuffet & Art Brut, traveling exhibition, Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf; Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne; Musée d'art moderne Lille Métropole, Villeneuve d'Ascq

1992, Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

Selected Collections

Collection abcd, Montreuil
Musée Cantonnal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Selected Bibliography

Borgeaud, Julie, Louis Soutter: Le tremblement de la modernité, exhibition catalogue, Éditions Fage, Lyon, 2012.

Les primitifs sont petits: Cahiers de Louis Soutter, 1923-1930, exhibition catalogue, Musée Fenaille & Éditions LIENART, Montreuil-sous-Bois (France), 2012.

Inner Worlds Outside, exhibition catalogue, Fundacíon "La Caixa," WhiteChapel Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art & Ediciones El Viso, Madrid, 2006.

Dubuffet & Art Brut, exhibition catalogue, 5 Continents Editions & Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, 2005.

Fischer, Hartwig, Lucienne Peiry, Michel Thévoz, et al., Louis Soutter, 1871-1942, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostilfern (Germany), 2002.

Tuchman, Maurice and Carol S. Eliel, eds., Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1992.

Cendo, Nicolas, Michel Thévoz, et al., L'art commence ou finit la vie, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1987.

Thévoz, Michel, Louis Soutter ou l'écriture du désir, Éditions l'Âge d'homme & Institut suisse pour l'étude de l'art, Lausanne & Zürich, 1974.

Thévoz, Michel, Louis Soutter, Editions Rencontre, Lausanne, 1970.

Berger, René, and Ernest Manganel, Louis Soutter: Témoignages de René Auberjonois et de Le Corbusier, exhibition catalogue, Musée Cantonnal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, 1961.

Le Corbusier, "Louis Soutter [sic], l'inconnu de la soixantaine," Minotaure 3, No. 9, 1936.
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