In the years preceding his return to France in 1923, imagery of the couple in flight – a trope that would become recognized as one of the artist’s prime pictorial devices in later years – became firmly established. Au-dessus de la ville, La Promenade and L’Anniversaire all feature Marc and his wife Bella floating above the pull of gravity with idealized views of their village, environs and home respectively as backdrop. L’Anniversaire, first painted in 1915, was recreated by the artist in 1923 in a closely related canvas. Bella Chagall recalled the scene in later years, evoked by her appearance at Chagall’s apartment on his birthday. When he saw her he demanded that she stand still and, as she recounts, he began to paint: “But what shall I do with the flowers? I cannot stay standing on the same spot. I want to put them in water or they will fade. But I soon forget them. You throw yourself upon the canvas which trembles under your hand. You snatch the brushes and squeeze out the paint—red, blue, white, black. You drag me into the stream of colors. Suddenly you lift me off the ground and push with your foot as if you feel too cramped in the little room. You leap, stretch out at full length, and fly up to the ceiling. Your head is turned to me. I listen to the melody of your soft, deep voice. I can even hear the song in your eyes. And together we rise to the ceiling of the gaily decked room and fly away. We reach the window and want to pass through. Through the window, clouds and blue sky beckon us. The walls, hung with my colored shawls, flutter about us and make our heads swim. Fields of flowers, houses, roofs, churches, swim beneath us” (B. Chagall, Di ershte bagegenish, New York, 1947; translated in I. Chagall, Lumières allumées, Paris, 1973, pp. 258-59).
With his great love with him in France, Chagall was able to fully enjoy his adopted country. Andrew Kagan comments on the sweetness of this time for the artist writing: “This was a period [the mid-to-late 1920s] of unrivaled happiness and contentment for Chagall. He and Bella were able to discover the joys of traveling throughout France, where the artist fell in love with the varied landscapes and the distinctive effects of light. These journeys yielded works with a brilliant new illumination and an unprecedented airiness…There also appeared paintings of intense color and lyric forms, such as Lovers with Flowers, which express the renewed spirit of romance and youthfulness that he and Bella found in their pleasant new circumstances” (A. Kagan, Marc Chagall, New York, 1989, p. 53). The intense dream-like quality of L'Esprit de roses (Au-dessus des fleurs) incorporates, aside from the floating/flying figure, several other elements which would become hallmarks of Chagall’s best work: the inclusion of floral bouquets and the importance of the color blue. The bouquet at center, with its rich red blossoms and verdant greenery appears before a balustrade, which in turn gives way to a view of the sea with two distant ships at the far horizon line.
Another artists whose love of the color blue became his hallmark, Yves Klein, interacted with the sky some twenty years after L'Esprit de roses (Au-dessus des fleurs) was painted: “The boundlessness of the heaven had long been a source of inspiration to Klein. At the age of nineteen, as he lay on the beach one hot, sunny summer day in the south of France, he embarked on a ‘realistic-imaginary’ mental journey into the blue depths. On his return he declared ‘I have written my name on the far side of the sky!’” (H. Weitemeir, Yves Klein 1928-1962, International Klein Blue, Cologne, 2001, p. 8). In 1961, Klein would further explore the human figure set against the blue expanse of the heavens: “When we look at Humans Begin to Fly of 1961, we see a series of silhouetted figures apparently hovering in an indeterminate space, above or before the actual painting surface... The enigmatic Humans Begin to Fly, like The Leap into the Void, poignantly conveys the idea of harmonious self-sublimation. This derived from Klein’s insight into the deeper meaning of the ancient alchemistic vision of universal levitation. ‘Thus we will become aerial men,’ he predicted. ‘We will literally float in total physical and mental freedom’” (ibid., p. 62). Marc Chagall had conveyed these sensibilities and dreams decades prior in his floating couples and single figures, achieving weightlessness and freedom through his fantastical imagery.
L'Esprit de roses (Au-dessus des fleurs) has impeccable provenance and has been in the same family's collection since 1957, when it was acquired from the Georges Lurcy auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries. Lurcy was born in Paris in 1891. An investor whose successes stemmed from developments in aeronautics during World War I, Lurcy went on to avidly collect art, living between Paris and the Unites States until 1940, when he moved permanently to America. The sale of his collection was a turning point in the history of auctions in the United States. A few months prior, the William Weinberg collection at Sotheby's, London became a society event, including a visit to the exhibition by none other than the Queen. "If the Queen had viewed the Weinberg sale at Sotheby's in London," Philip Hook illuminates, "then New York's equivalent of royalty - not to be outdone - turned up in all their glory for the Lurcy sale. The Rockefellers, Fords, Vanderbilts, Goulandrises, Dillons, Chester Dales and Lehmans were all conspicuously present as the the hammer came down on the first lot. The room was so crowded that Mrs. Niarchos had to be given a chair in the wings of the stage. An eye-witness recorded that Eleanor Roosevelt sat beside Helena Rubinstein: 'Miss Rubinstein dressed as a rich gipsy, Mrs. Roosevelt as the most stolid librarian.' Art auctions were taking their place with society weddings and first nights at the ballet as places to be seen'" (P. Hook, The Ultimate Trophy, How the Impressionist Painting Conquered the World, New York, 2010, p. 155). It was in this atmosphere that L'Esprit de roses (Au-dessus des fleurs) last appeared at auction, remaining in the same family's collection since they acquired it at the Lurcy sale.
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