Details & Cataloguing

Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

New York

Marc Chagall
1887 - 1985
Signed Marc Chagall (lower right); signed Marc Chagall on the reverse 
Oil on canvas
63 by 67 in.
160 by 170.2 cm
Painted in 1968.
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The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by the Comite Chagall.


Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist)

Private Collection (sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 13, 1998, lot 51)

Private Collection, United States (acquired at the above sale)


New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Marc Chagall, Recent Paintings, 1966-1968, 1968, no. 23

New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1975

New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Marc Chagall, A Celebration, 1977, no. 11

Sarasota, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, The Circus in Art, 1977

Milwaukee Museum of Art; Columbus Museum of Art;  Albany, New York State Museum; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art,  Center Ring: The Artist. Two Centuries of Circus Art, 1981-82, no. 29

London, Royal Academy of Arts: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Chagall, 1985, no. 110


Werner Haftmann, Marc Chagall, New York, 1972, no. 43, illustrated p. 151

Francois Le Target, Marc Chagall, Madrid and Paris, 1986, no. 116

Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger, Marc Chagall, 1887-1985, Painting as Poetry, Cologne, 1993, illustrated

Catalogue Note

Chagall's monumental oil, Le Grand cirque, is a spectacular meditation on a theme that fascinated him throughout his life.  The artist devoted numerous canvases to depicting the larger-than-life atmosphere of the circus and the captivating power of its imagery.   Chagall's focus here is on the ring or center stage as a mythical winged figures looks down upon the spectacle from on high. This picture, which was the largest easel painting he completed in 1968, is considered to be his most grand exploration of this subject.  "For me a circus is a magic show," Chagall wrote the year before he completed the present picture, "that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing.  It is profound."   

On the occasion of the artist's 85th birthday,  Werner Haftmann wrote a monograph on Chagall and included the present picture among his greatest life achievements.  Writing extensively on this work, he states in no uncertain terms that it is Chagall's most accomplished rendition of his circus pictures: "It is the most extraordinary of all the circus pictures.  The basic color tone is determined by black and white.  The effect is impressively dramatic and deeply serious.  The rhythmic pattern of the arcs and the surrounding composition has a strangely solemn -- one might say Byzantine -- quality, such as we find in Chagall's sacred windows.  Bordering the black-and-white zone on either side are abstractly located color planes of cool green, and on the upper right-hand side the strip of terrestrial green is set off by a panel of nocturnal blue.  Like curtains, these color zones screen off the spiritual realm of the vision.  But the suggestions of these varied colors, occurring in abstractly placed planels without regard to objective coloring, in the coloristic method used by Chagall at this period, have the effect of transforming the black and white into color -- into glistening light and darkness.  In terms of color, the drama is already staged"   (Werner Haftman, Marc Chagall, 1972, p. 150).

Chagall first exhibited this picture with his dealer Pierre Matisse in New York in December 1968, shortly after he completed it.  Matisse kept it in the gallery's collection for several years, exhibiting it at some of the most important retrospectives of the artist's work, including the definitive exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1985.  In the catalogue for that exhibtion, Susan Compton wrote the following about the provocative symbolism in Le Grand cirque and its visual impact on the viewer: "Despite the fact that the circus theme might be expected to evoke the comedy of life, the underlying tragedy of this parody of human condition is overpowering.  Gone are the tumblers of the big top, all simple gaiety in the sawdust ring: here, instead, Chagall depicts some more profound drama in which man is engaged, poised between Heaven and Hell, ever torn apart by the twin desires of hatred and love, and ever seeking a way of reconciliation" (Susan Compton, Chagall (exhibition catalogue), Royal Academy of Arts, London, p. 236).

Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

New York