Chagall’s first wife Bella passed away in 1944. A consummately emotional artist, Chagall’s work became imbued with his melancholic grieving. Bouquets, referencing abundance, romantic love and the manifestation of life, became a mainstay in his work (see fig. 1). In Le Paysan, the bouquet represents both his enduring love for Bella as well as the happiness recaptured by his second marriage to Valentina “Vava” Brodsky, who he wed in 1952. Chagall met Vava after his daughter Ida hired her as his personal secretary. Ida had recently married the art historian Franz Meyer and had become concerned with her father’s lack of companionship now that she was to leave home. Vava and Chagall married after only a few months together. The painting is a testament of his appreciation for Vava as he dedicated it to her on the reverse of the canvas signing it Pour Vava. Chagall and Vava both shared a Russian Jewish background, which can be seen in his further dedication to her in Cyrillic From her loving “little husband” from Vitebsk.
Musicians, an iconic theme in the artist’s oeuvre, can be traced back to his celebrated Le Violoniste of 1912-13 (see fig. 2), now in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The two violin-playing goats are depicted flying over a village, the houses and church in the background reminiscent of the artist’s native Vitebsk. Musicians hearken back to Chagall’s childhood in Vitebsk as street performers were very popular due, in part to the lack of formal orchestras and cultural institutions. Street musicians were an important figure in the life of a Russian village, representing arts and popular culture. In the present work, the artist’s reference to his Russian roots is represented two-fold through the inclusion of musicians and goats and also is shown by the two-faced figure which appears to be looking straight ahead at the viewer, as well as sideways at the goat-violinist.
Accompanied by a full moon and farm animals scattered in the night sky, the figures embody a world of fantasy and childhood memories that provided emotional and mental refuge for the artist. Dominating the bottom of the composition, we see the familiar townscape of Chagall’s native Vitebsk; the life he experienced in this rural region was the subject of his earliest forays into artistic expression and remained a mainstay of his personal symbolism. Indeed, Le Paysan evokes the fantasy and harmony of Russian rural life, a domain to which Chagall often escaped in his mature years. Discussing another depiction of a violinist, Chagall’s biographer and son-in-law Franz Meyer, wrote about the inclusion of musical representations in Chagall’s work: “The musician, two faced Orpheus, is the instrument he plays, and the houses of Vitebsk, now brought quite close, are the walls of Thebes that his song conjures up. The tune is taken up not only by the little animal-headed musician, but by all the forms of the picture which thus play it too” (F. Meyer, Chagall, New York, 1961, p. 426).
Although Chagall moved away from Vitebsk at a young age it would always remain the sacred place in which he met his beloved Bella, whom he married in 1915. The tumultuous twentieth century meant that both his hometown and Bella would only live on in his memories. Vitebsk was changed irrevocably as a result of two World Wars. As such, Les Paysans, muses on Chagall’s wonderful and wistful memories of the past, while also infused with a happiness in the present as he looks back with joy at these memories. “The fact that I made use of cows, milkmaids, roosters and provincial Russian architecture as my source forms is because they are part of the environment from which I spring and which undoubtedly left the deepest impression on my visual memory of the experiences I have” (quoted in B. Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall on Art and Culture, Stanford, 2003, p. 83).
Full of bursting colors which do not directly correlate to the objects they depicts but rather operating independently of them, the work’s many figures are united by the rainbow spectrum of the landscape in all its abundance; the blue of the sky and the goat, the red of the houses and its warmth, the green of the faces, melding together create this fantastic composition.
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