On June 3, 1952, Willem de Kooning, in the midst of creating the paintings that made him famous, was granted a private tour of the Barnes Foundation in Merion. More than two decades later, he recalled his amazement at the collection.

“In one room there were two long walls — one all Matisse and the other all Soutine,” de Kooning said 25 years later. “The Soutine had a glow that came from within the paintings. It was another kind of light.”

His memory was mistaken. There was no wall of Soutines, though the permanent collection has 16. But in “Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint,” the new mini-blockbuster exhibition that opens Sunday, March 7, at the Barnes, there are several memorable walls full of Soutines: turbulent landscapes, psychologically astute portraits, bloody animal carcasses.

And they are joined by even more memorable walls of de Kooning works: his women of the 1940s with masklike faces, his monumental women of the early 1950s, the splashier, more superficially sexy women of the late 1950s and 1960s, and finally the broadbrushed landscapes into which the women seem to disappear.

This extraordinary exhibition, which was organized by the Barnes and the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, is not enormous. There are 42 works on display. But this juxtaposition of two painters given to big gestures, thick paint, and intense emotion feels exhausting and exhilarating.

Soutine and de Kooning were born only 11 years apart, but their careers took shape in different places, and really in different eras.

Chaim Soutine, the 10th child of a Jewish tailor, was born near Minsk in 1893, studied in Vilnius, and made his way to Paris in 1913. His period of greatest productivity was during the early 1920s. A turning point came in 1922 when Albert Barnes, who believed in collecting in quantity, bought the first of more than 50 paintings he would eventually acquire. (He later sold 30 of them.) Soutine died in 1943, during surgery.

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam in 1904, and after apprenticing at an interior decorating business and taking art lessons, stowed away in a U.S.-bound ship. He spent many years in jobs that included store display and theater scenery and did not really start to concentrate on his art until the late 1930s. Following World War II, he emerged as one of the creators of abstract expressionism, a style that expressed American confidence and dominance. He died in 1997 at age 92.

While Soutine’s life was over before de Kooning’s career was really underway, Soutine was shown regularly in New York, and de Kooning was aware of his work. “I have always been crazy about Soutine — all of his paintings,” de Kooning said in a 1977 interview that is reprinted in the show’s catalog. The exhibition seeks to show the way in which Soutine’s work prefigured, and perhaps influenced, that of de Kooning.

Their most obvious affinity, as de Kooning himself noted, was what he called “the lushness of the paint.” Soutine’s landscapes are said to depict specific places, particularly in the town of Céret, where he lived for several years. But while you can make out some hills and trees, what you really see are the vibrant colors and almost violent, angular brushstrokes.

Soutine was obviously influenced by van Gogh, and his landscapes appear troubled, or even gratuitously spooky. But in works such as Landscape with House and Tree (c. 1920-21), what you notice most is the vividness and layering of the colors and the willfulness of the artist, making his idiosyncratic marks and gestures.

In Woman in Pink (c. 1924), the subject’s body is distorted. What’s important is the almost riverlike flow of the brushstrokes that make up her gown. Soutine’s portraits regularly ignore anatomy to achieve something more expressive and personal.

Torn-apart bodies also figure importantly in his work. Soutine is said to have worked on the monumental Carcass of Beef (1925) over a long time, living with the stink and occasionally pouring fresh blood on it. Yet even here, the eye is drawn to a light that seems to be coming from within the corpse and a suggestion of the spiritual. The flesh and bones are almost invisible.

Of course, de Kooning’s best-known works — his Woman series — often ignore anatomy, as well.

“Women are the symbol of civilization,” de Kooning said, alluding to earth mother figures that are among the earliest known sculptures. His women are formidable, scary, funny, and all-encompassing. They probably display an unexamined sexism typical of their period. The presence of a Marilyn Monroe painting here reminds us that the early ’50s, when de Kooning became a star, was a moment in American culture when car bumpers were sprouting breast-like protuberances.

Thirteen of de Kooning’s Woman paintings are on display in this show, including the iconic Woman II (1952) from the Museum of Modern Art. A less familiar work, Woman as Landscape (1954-55) serves as the show’s de facto centerpiece. Though it comes across in reproduction as an elaborate scribble, it is a multilayered work that seems to become more mysterious the longer you look at it.

Its most obvious oddity is that it seems to have two faces, one the big masklike one at the center of the figure’s body, and the other, vaguer one at the expected location at the top of her neck. And there is a landscape there, best glimpsed when you are not trying to make too much sense of the figure.

Similarly, Soutine’s landscapes contain unexpected faces. This shared sense of landscape and figure fused is perhaps the most important thing to be learned from seeing the two artists together.

The exhibition makes such a good case for thinking of the two artists together that one almost forgets how different their experiences and attitudes were. Anti-Semitism shadowed Soutine from the time he was born, and the Nazi occupation of France hastened his early death. If his paintings show fear, even in their trees and hills, not to mention their faces, there is good reason.

Meanwhile, de Kooning, even though he was long an undocumented immigrant to the United States, presented himself as a fulfillment of the American dream, and his work helped define the optimistic face of the nation for decades.

What they had in common, most of all, was a gift for gesture and a love of paint.


Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint

March 7-Aug. 8 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Monday

Admission: $25, adults; $23, seniors; $5 youths 13-18 and college students with ID (children under 13 free), includes access to Barnes Collection.

Information: 215-278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org.