Painted in 1976, L’Atelier is a wistful meditation on the artist's life’s work and the sources of his artistic inspiration. The artist in his studio was a subject that Chagall explored throughout his lifetime but seemed to turn to increasingly in his later years (see fig. 1). The paintings of this period often express a sense of nostalgia or reflection: the last survivor a generation of artists that had been at the forefront of the avant-garde, Chagall had become widely sought-after and acclaimed—a positon that was consolidated in the 1970s with the opening of the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall in 1973.
In the present work, Chagall explores the theme of the artist at work against the backdrop of a remarkably fully rendered studio. At the heart of the composition is an exuberant bouquet of flowers. Larger than life, these flowers are a recurring motif in Chagall’s work, but in L’Atelier their placement also suggests their presence as a still-life object within the context of the painted scene. Flowers had a special significance for Chagall, as André Verdet explains: “Marc Chagall loved flowers. He delighted in their aroma, in contemplating their colors. For a long time, certainly after 1948 when he moved for good to the South of France after his wartime stay in the U.S., there were always flowers in his studio. In his work bouquets of flowers held a special place… Usually they created a sense of joy, but they could also reflect the melancholy of memories” (quoted in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, Fairfield, 1995, p. 347).
Beyond the flowers Chagall depicts an artist at work, with the faint outlines of a cockerel—another integral element of his personal iconography—emerging on the canvas. His muse, seated in the foreground as though modelling for an invisible picture, is probably his second wife Vava and the structure of the present work recalls Chagall’s 1966 portrait of her where she is shown seated before a canvas as though in the artist’s studio emphasizing her centrality in his creative process. The subject of the artist’s studio has an important art historical tradition, and the large window of the room here may recall Picasso’s paintings of his studio at La Californie. Chagall settled in the South of France following his return from the United States in 1948; his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence was only a short distance from Picasso’s studio and although relations between the two were often difficult, their proximity ensured an awareness of each other’s work.
Marc Chagall, Le Peintre, 1978, oil on canvas, sold: Sotheby’s, New York, May 8, 2014, lot 192 for $1,685,000