Lot 12
  • 12

Marc Chagall

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 GBP
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  • Marc Chagall
  • signed Marc Chagall and dated 1960 (lower left); signed Chagall, dated 1960 and inscribed Vence on the reverse

  • oil on canvas
  • 150.5 by 120.2cm.
  • 59 1/4 by 47 3/8 in.


Galerie Maeght, Paris (acquired from the artist)
Marcus Diener, Basel (acquired from the abovein 1960)
Thence by descent to the present owners


Kyoto, Musée Municipal de Kyoto & Tokyo, Musée National d'Art Occidental, Chagall, 1963, no. 113, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Paris, Grand Palais, Marc Chagall, 1969-70, no. 157, illustrated in the catalogue
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum, Marc Chagall, 1970, no. 99
Balingen, Stadthalle Balingen, Marc Chagall zum 100. Geburtstag Gouachen und Aquarelle, 1986, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Tel Aviv, The Tel Aviv Museum, Marc Chagall - 100th Anniversary of his Birth - The Marcus Diener Collection, 1987, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Breda, De Beyerd, Marc Chagall, collectie Marcus Diener, 1989, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Barbican Art Gallery, Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in 20th Century, 1990-1991, no. 131
Munich, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Marc Chagall, 1991, no. 87, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Salzburg, Salzburger Landessammlungen Rupertinum & Graz, Kulturhaus der Stadt Graz, Marc Chagall: Die Sammlung Marcus Diener, 1992, illustrated in colour in the catalogue; illustrated in colour on the cover


Franz Meyer, Chagall, New York, 1961, no. 585, illustrated p. 585


The canvas is unlined and there is no evidence of retouching under ultra-violet light. Apart from a very small possible paint loss towards the lower right edge, this work is in excellent original condition. Colours Overall fairly accurate in the printed catalogue illustration, although slightly more vibrant in the original.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The collection that was formed by Marcus Diener is the result of a passionate love of art which was characterised by his sense of quality and profound understanding of Chagall's artistic importance. The collection ranges from magnificent early watercolours and drawings to monumental oil paintings from the artist's later years. The mature works he collected, exemplified by L'arbre de Jessé, possess all the marvellous invention and vibrancy for which the artist is celebrated. The collection as a whole is a wonderful example of the intricate relationship between artist and collector and was the subject of a major touring exhibition held in 1986-87 to mark the centenary of Chagall's birth. 

Marc Chagall's L'arbre de Jessé is an exceptional painting that illustrates the remarkable nature of Marcus Diener's collection. His acquisition of L'arbre de Jessé was the catalyst to his friendship with the artist. Even before their meeting in the south of France, Marcus Diener had already amassed an extraordinary collection that covered the breadth of Chagall's diverse œuvre. Diener came across the present work in the Galerie Maeght in Paris and instantly wanted to acquire it. However, on application to the dealer he was told that in order to purchase the work the sale would have to be agreed upon by Chagall himself. In the summer of the same year whilst on the Côte d'Azur Marcus Diener received a phonecall from the artist inviting him to St. Paul de Vence. Their meeting that afternoon concluded the matter, Diener was judged a worthy buyer of L'arbre de Jessé, and sparked off a life-long friendship.

In Chagall's mature œuvre, the artist's aesthetic vocabulary was so well established that he was able to tackle a wide variety of subjects on a single canvas. This splendid oil from 1960, with its combination of Biblical, folkloric and personal symbolism, encompasses many of the themes for which the artist is renowned. Lovers, flowers, animals and a figure of the painter at his easel are floating around a spectacularly colourful tree which seems to spring out of a fiery red Notre-Dame cathedral. 'That he is a Russian may account for his surprising Byzantine colour,' the art historian and curator Katherine Kuh once remarked, 'but scarcely explains his indifference to normal laws of gravity' (K. Kuh, 'The Pleasure of Chagall's Paintings', in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 149). Ever since his first years in Paris, the artist filled his compositions with topographical references to his adopted city, in particular he continually depticted the landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, Sacré Cœur and Notre-Dame (fig. 3).

The title of this painting refers to the Biblical prophecy of Isaiah:  'And there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots' (Isaiah 11:1-3). Jesse was the father of King David, the leader of the Israelites portrayed in the Book of Samuel. According to the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Jesus Christ was also a descendant of King David, and therefore the genealogy of Jesse is spiritually resonant with both Christians and Jews alike.  The 'Tree of Jesse', as this Biblical image came to be known, has historically been a common subject for public stained glass windows, such as the one in Chartres Cathedral (fig. 1). Chagall himself was active on several commissions of stained glass windows around the time he painted this work, so iconic examples of this medium were undoubtedly on his mind. In fact, Chagall's choice of jewel-like colours and his application of the paint here create the same luminescent quality and transparency as stained glass.

Even when he was painting his depictions of lovers, who were understood to be references to Chagall and his wife, the artist encouraged his audience to enjoy the pictures for their visual splendour rather than their iconographical associations. According to Katherine Kuh, Chagall's paintings 'are to be looked at - not interpreted. [...]  He is not illustrating dreams, fantasies, or folk legends; in short, he is not an illustrator, nor is he a mystic or a symbolist, as is so commonly said. For Chagall tells us clearly that his problem is a visual one: his only restrictions those which involve looking and seeing' (K. Kuh, ibid., p. 150). In L'arbre de Jessé, bold areas of colour lead the viewer's eye from one area to another, highlighting various elements within the composition, while at the same time grounding them firmly onto the two-dimensional picture plane.

Fig. 1, L'Arbre de Jessé, 1145, stained glass window, Chartres Catherdral, Chartres

Fig. 2, Chagall at the window of his Paris studio at 13, Quai d'Anjou, 1958-59

Fig. 3, Marc Chagall, Autoportrait, 1950-68, oil on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence