So begins the fable of “The Heifer, the goat and the sheep in company with the lion,” from Jean de La Fontaine’s The Fables, the story from which the present lot was inspired. Largely drawn from Aesop, Babrius and Phaedrus’ tales, the 239 fables, published between 1668 and 1694, use unfailing humor to examine moral qualms and human nature. The story of “The Heifer, the goat and the sheep in company with the lion” calls one to be cautious of whom to trust, with the stated equitable distribution of assets quickly dissolving as the lion retains the entirety of the stag by right of kingship (the fable is the genesis of the idiomatic expression “the lion’s share”).
Ambroise Vollard, preeminent French art dealer and close friend of Chagall, commissioned the artist to create a series of etchings illustrating The Fables in 1925, an assignment met with scorn by French society. Staunch conservatives reacted with horror—the notion of a foreigner illustrating high Classical French literature was in opposition to their nationalistic ideals, and they escalated the issue to Parliament to be discussed in the Chamber of Deputies. In response to the Chamber’s clamoring question “why Chagall?” Vollard explained: “Simply because his aesthetic seems to me in a certain sense akin to La Fontaine’s, at once sound and delicate, realistic and fantastic” (quoted in Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, Life and Work, New York, 1963, p. 348).
Chagall’s illustrations for La Fontaine’s The Fables are among some of the most imaginative and lyrical works from the artist’s entire oeuvre. The complete set of etchings derived from Chagall’s gouache sketches was finally published in 1952 and is enduringly considered among the greatest print suites of the twentieth century. In the present work, Chagall’s ominous color palette and the haunting procession of heifer, goat and sheep toward the lion’s oversized figure perfectly encapsulates the tone of The Fables, which purposefully blends themes of ease and levity with cruelty and melancholy. La Génisse, la chèvre et la brebis en société avec le lion is a testament to Vollard’s unwavering conviction in Chagall, as the artist faithfully evokes in his composition the simple power of folklore.
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