Painted in 1947-48, Les Trois bouquets (Le Bouquet renversé) is a beguiling and profoundly romantic composition. Set against a luminous blue background bursting with deeply personal imagery, three luscious bouquets of flowers erupt from their vases to fill the canvas. It is a picture which embodies the sense of regeneration and renewed optimism that characterised Chagall’s work during this important period of transition. Whilst the works Chagall painted in the years directly following his 1941 arrival in the United States were imbued with dark meditations on the increasingly bleak situation in Europe, paintings—such as the present work—which were executed in the year prior to the artist’s return to France in 1948, show a gentle shift towards the colourful energy of his earlier work; they count, as Franz Meyer notes, ‘among the most marvellous works Chagall produced in America’ (Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, Life and Work, New York, 1961, p. 478).
Having initially struggled to adapt to life in the United States, Chagall achieved great success there, culminating in the critically acclaimed 1946 retrospective of his work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. In May that year, Chagall travelled to Paris for the first time since he had fled Europe five years earlier and he once again fell under the spell of his adopted city; his work regained an evocative lyricism and sensuality. From then on, the idea of returning to Europe for good was uppermost in his mind. By this time, he was beginning to recover from the tragedy of his wife Bella’s sudden death in 1944, and had begun a relationship with Virginia Haggard McNeil with whom he would father a son, David. With a new energy, Chagall set about re-working old paintings which he had brought with him to the United States whilst simultaneously working on major new compositions. In 1947, for instance, the same year he painted the present work, Chagall completed Bouquet aux amoureux volants (fig. 2), begun in the mid-1930s, a hauntingly beautiful composition that explored his feelings of loss and nostalgia in mourning Bella, whilst working on Autoportrait à l’horloge (fig. 1) a masterpiece that expressed the complexity of his emotional situation with Virginia. Elements of both these compositions find their echo in Les Trois bouquets (Le Bouquet renversé) with its horned red animal and the oversized bouquets, although the red-headed woman who appears in the sky at upper left here carries a special significance since she represents neither the black-haired Bella nor the brown-haired Virginia but rather Chagall’s beloved daughter Ida with her first husband Michel Gordey Rapaport.
In an unbridled celebration of life and love, Ida and Michel float through the sky, their heads cradled together with exquisite tenderness, dwarfed by the magnificent flowers. Occupying a pivotal place in both Les Trois bouquets (Le Bouquet renversé) and the artist’s wider œuvre, Chagall’s flowers unfailingly impart a sense of abundance and whimsy, as André Verdet explains: ‘Marc Chagall loved flowers. He delighted in their aroma, in contemplating their colours. […] 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’ (A. Verdet, in J. Baal-Teshuva (ed.), Chagall: A Retrospective, Fairfield, 1995, p. 347). Particularly striking in the present work is the contrast between the heavy impasto and deeply saturated colours of the red, pink and white petals and the pearlescent tones of the finely painted background from which the brightly coloured animal—neither goat nor cow—emerges. The creatures of Chagall’s imagination were an equally essential part of the artist’s visions of utopia: ‘For Chagall, the animals represent harmony and contentment with the cyclic destiny of nature; the innocent acceptance of being a part of nature’s great ensemble of living things’ (W. Haftmann, Chagall, New York, 1973, p.136). In the present work, however, the crimson animal also references the earlier Autoportrait à l’horloge in which the artist depicts himself with the features of a red goat (fig. 1), thus suggesting the presence of Chagall himself offering a benediction to the lovers.
Memories of Chagall’s formative years in Russia were never far from the surface and in Les Trois bouquets (Le Bouquet renversé) we recognise the unmistakeable rambling streets and rooftops of the artist’s native village of Vitebsk at the lower left. The theme of figures floating above the distinctive picket fences of Vitebsk can be traced back to a number of celebrated paintings from his time in Russia and France—including Au-dessus de la ville (1914-18) (fig. 3) and Les Cavaliers (1928-29) (fig. 4)—but it took on new significance in his work of the post-war years: on the very day that Chagall arrived in New York, 21st June 1941, the Germans invaded Russia and in the ensuing months his beloved hometown was almost completely destroyed.
It is the prominence of these extraordinary symbols of the artist's internal universe combined with the innovative use of colour and the altered dreamscape perspective that marks out Les Trois bouquets (Le Bouquet renversé) as such an important example of Chagall’s post-war work.