Fritz & Herta Liebhold, Mannheim & Melbourne (acquired from above on the 3rd September 1937)
Herta Liebhold, Melbourne (by descent from the above)
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1988)
Acquired from the above by the present owner on 11th February 1991
Canberra, Australian National Gallery, 1988-90 (on loan)
Ludwigshafen, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Marc Chagall: Mein Leben – Mein Traum. Berlin und Paris, 1922-1940, 1990, no. 19, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (with incorrect measurements)
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais & San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Chagall connu et inconnu, 2003, no. 76, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
The artist once described this house as ‘the little house near the Peskowatik road…my Father sold it as soon as he was a little better off... Looking down on this little house from my newfound “stature” I winced and asked myself, “How could I possibly have been born there? How can one breathe in such a hole?”’ (quoted in S. Compton, Marc Chagall. My Life – My Dream, Munich, 1990, p. 198). Yet despite this, the ‘little house’ was evidently an important part of the artist’s earliest memories, and repeatedly featured in his nostalgic paintings of Vitebsk, such as Au-dessus de la ville (fig. 3), and was invariably painted in vibrant tones which distinguished it from the rest of the town. When in 1933 he was asked to describe the important meetings of his life he replied in characteristically whimsical fashion, ‘When I opened my eyes for the first time in my life I met a whole world, the town, the house, which little by little became fixed in me for always. Later I met a woman’ (quoted in ibid., p. 11). The woman in question was his childhood love and first wife Bella. From the very first, images of her as the archetypal beloved, are associated with depictions that recall Vitebsk and both would become symbolic figures that recalled the early years of the artist’s experience. The prominence of the house in the present work confirms it as Chagall’s definitive and very personal symbol of family and his Russian roots. Chagall combines it with the proliferation of animals and rustic characters that were a common feature in his work of this period. In particular, there is a gouache from 1923-24 Le village that employs not only the same characters – including the figure of the artist’s grandfather sitting on the roof of the house – but also the same distorted perspective that Chagall employs to such effect in the present work.
It is the combination of this altered perspective with the artist’s innovative use of colour that marks out Les maisonettes rouges as such an important example of Chagall’s early work. Compton suggests that the vibrant red was inspired by the fire which ravaged Vitebsk on 24th June 1887, only two weeks before Chagall was born, but it might also have been that the artist, a once staunch communist leaving Russia as a result of his frustration with the new regime, was also nostalgic for a failed political cause. Chagall had already begun experimenting with his use of colour – as the swathes of unadulterated blue and yellow in La maison bleue suggest – and in the present work this is developed in combination with a much freer handling. This new style, which first emerged in works of the early 1920s such as Les maisonettes rouges showed a marked difference from the Cubist-inspired works of the previous decade and was quickly adopted by the artist, going on to become one of the defining elements of his very distinctive aesthetic.
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