Lot 40
  • 40

Marc Chagall

8,000,000 - 12,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Marc Chagall
  • Le Grand cirque
  • Signed and dated Marc Chagall 1956 (lower right)

  • Oil and gouache on canvas

  • 62 3/4 by 121 1/2 in.
  • 159.5 by 308.5 cm


Gustave Stern Foundation, New York

Acquired from the above by the present owner


Berne, Kunsthalle, Marc Chagall, Oeuvres de 1950 à 1956, 1956, no. 46

Basel, Kunsthalle, Oeuvres des 25 dernières années, 1956, no. 61

Paris, Galerie Maeght, Marc Chagall, 1957, no. 5

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, L'oeuvre des dernières années, 1956-57, no. 147

Hamburg, Kunsthalle; Munich, Haus der Kunst, Chagall-Ausstellung, 1959, no. 166

Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs, Exposition Marc Chagall, 1959, no. 174

South Bend, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Art Gallery, 1965

Zürich, Kunsthaus (on loan)

Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Chagall in Israel, 2002-03

Catalogue Note

Chagall found an endless amount of pleasure in depicting the visual splendor of the circus.  Throughout his career he drew great creative energy from watching the event, and some of his most important canvases are fantastic depictions that exaggerate the pageantry of the performance.  “It’s a magic world, the circus,” Chagall once wrote, “an age-old game that is danced, and in which tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of great art….The circus is the performance that seems to me the most tragic. Throughout the centuries, it has been man’s most piercing cry in his search for entertainment and joy.  It often takes the form of lofty poetry.  I seem to see a Don Quixote in search of an ideal, like that marvelous clown who wept and dreamed of human love.”


Although this picture is mostly populated by circus performers, these characters had many levels of significance for the artist.  To him, they represented the many faces of man’s emotional character, both fun-loving and tragic.  He once wrote, “I have always considered the clowns, acrobats, and actors as being tragically human who, for me, would resemble characters from certain religious paintings.  And even today, when I paint a Crucifixion or another religious painting, I experience again almost the same sensations that I felt while painting circus people, and yet there is nothing literary in these paintings, and it is very difficult to explain why I find a psycho-plastic resemblance between the two kinds of composition.”

Chagall’s fascination with the circus dates back to his childhood in Vitebsk and his years in Paris when he frequently attended the circus with Ambroise Vollard. As Venturi explains, “The importance of the circus motif in modern French literature and painting is well known; in painting it suffices to recall the names of Seurat and Rouault. As always, Chagall’s images of circus people … are at once burlesque and tender. Their perspective of sentiment, their fantastic forms, suggest that the painter is amusing himself in a freer mood than usual; and the result is eloquent of the unmistakable purity flowing from Chagall’s heart.  These circus scenes are mature realizations of earlier dreams” (Lionello Venturi, Marc Chagall, New York, 1945, p. 39).

Fig. 1, Chagall in his studio.  Photograph by Virginia Haggard, Brussels