M arc Chagall’s world is one where musicians play from rooftops, lovers float above cities and flowers are larger than life. One of the most important and prolific artists of the 20th century, Chagall drew from a highly personal mythology to create a fantastical realm where his memories could come alive, blending the imagery and traditions of his Russian heritage with modern stylistic innovations discovered in his adopted country of France. Featuring works from six decades of painting, the selling exhibition Marc Chagall: Rêve et mémoire (on view at Sotheby’s Palm Beach 28 January–12 February) showcases the artist’s visual vernacular that is equal parts nostalgia and imagination, at once immediately recognizable and completely unique.
Sotheby's Presents: Marc Chagall: Rêve et mémoire
Chagall grew up in Vitebsk (part of present-day Belarus), his upbringing rich in Slavic folklore and Jewish tradition. He taught himself to draw by copying images from books in the local library, and in 1906 he moved to Saint Petersburg, where he studied with Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. At the conclusion of his academic training, Chagall left Russia for Paris, embarking on a thrilling yet bittersweet adventure which would define his future oeuvre. During these formative years in the French capital, Chagall befriended Chaim Soutine, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger and other members of the young avant-garde, incorporating elements of their varied aesthetics into the distinct style he would develop in the coming years.
It is impossible to align Chagall’s artistic style with any one movement or group. Lovers and acrobats dance across canvases in the rich hues of the Fauves, their figures rendered loosely in bold, almost Expressionist strokes. The towns and cities they inhabit bear the hallmarks of Cubist geometry and Russian folk art, while the exquisite bouquets of flowers they carry are perceived with an Impressionist’s eye. Yet, for all the exhilaration and creative inspiration Chagall found in Paris, the tone of his work was tempered by a yearning for the companionship of his fiancée, Bella Rosenfeld, whom he had left behind in Russia. Eventually marrying in 1915 upon his return to Vitebsk, their union would become a recurring theme in Chagall’s oeuvre and was tied to a sense of nostalgia for their Russian homeland. It would span long separations, disapproval form her parents and even her tragic early death in 1944.
“I was born, one might say, between heaven and earth, that the world is for me a great desert in which my soul wanders like a torch, I did these paintings in unison with this distant dream.”
While they remained in Russia during World War I, the Chagalls returned to France in 1923, where they lived until 1941, when they fled the Nazi occupation to New York. Chagall’s paintings from this time forward reflect the world he inhabited in his dreams, mirroring past and present, dream and memory. Discussing his semi-nomadic life, the artist once remarked: “I was born, one might say, between heaven and earth, that the world is for me a great desert in which my soul wanders like a torch, I did these paintings in unison with this distant dream.”
Painted during this turbulent period, La Visite de l’ange ou Juif à la Thora from circa 1937–38 depicts a Jewish man holding the Torah outside a dark, ramshackle isba in Vitebsk, a luminous angel floating overhead, illustrating both the artist’s fear for his community and his hopes for its salvation.
Le Peintre devant son chevalet, executed over a period of nine years from 1959–68, displays many of the motifs that populated his art. Here, the self-referential painter displays a double profile, one present at the easel and one in his realm of dream and memory. Both Bella in her bridal gown and the artist’s second wife Vava (whom he married in 1948 and associated with the vibrant florals of their home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence) are present on the canvas. Taken together with the artist at work, Chagall produces a moving meditation on the nature of life and art.
One of the later works in the exhibition, Le Rabbin ailé au shofar, showcases Chagall’s sustained virtuosity at the very end of his career. Executed in 1978, the year Chagall was commissioned to work on a set of stained glass windows for St. Stephan’s Church in Mainz, Germany, the work symbolizes the artist’s hope for a reconciliation between the German and Jewish peoples. While the artist credited his Russian-Jewish background as crucial to his artistic imagination, in his adult life he was nonpracticing. Chagall saw the commission as an opportunity for both cultures to move forward after the atrocities of World War II. In Le Rabbin ailé au shofar, Chagall suggests a more universal message of peace, using both Jewish and Christian motifs depicting Biblical subjects that occupied his final years.
Open from 28 January to 12 February at Sotheby’s Palm Beach, Marc Chagall: Rêve et mémoire charts the artist’s path across Europe, to America and back again, never losing sight of what he called home. The artist himself put it simply: “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.” Across oceans and decades, in dreams and memories, he carried them with him always.
Marquee: Chagall paints a stained-glass design at the Jacques Simon Glass Works in Reims, France, 1960s. Photo by Rapho Agence / Photo Researchers History / Getty Images