Details & Cataloguing

Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale


Marc Chagall
1887 - 1985
stamped Marc Chagall (towards lower left)
oil on canvas
48.5 by 36cm.,19 by 14 1/4 in.
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The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by the Comité Chagall.


Estate of the Artist
Acquired by the present owner circa 2000


St Paul de Vence, Foundation Maeght, 10 Ans d'Art vivant 1955-1965, Hommage à Marc Chagall, 1967, n. 39, illustrated in the catalogue

Catalogue Note

In a dramatic retelling of a passage from the book of Exodus, Marc Chagall’s La Traversée de la Mer Rouge remarkably portrays the Israelites crossing the Red Sea amidst a sombre and nocturnal backdrop of blue; a colour imbued with a reflective power that brings to life the sacred nature of the flight from Egypt. Epitomising his strength as a colourist, Chagall plays with the musicality of his palette, foregrounding  the conflict between light and dark, good and evil, which are swept together in a skilfully executed and harmonious composition to create a Biblical message of hope and salvation. As the pharaoh’s men are engulfed by the fiery walls of the Red Sea, the immediacy of the artist’s brushwork impregnates the canvas with pulsing intensity, in contrast to the serenity of air that surrounds the liberated Jews, who are bathed in tranquil green. Chagall’s symbolist universe, ultimately dominates the scene, as Moses - portrayed in bright yellow - is transfigured into a prophetic symbol of hope, whilst the Chagallian image of an angel in a sweeping gown of luminous white watches above.

Growing up in Vitebsk, the poetic nature of Biblical narratives had surrounded Chagall since childhood, and in 1930, he happily accepted commissions for painted scenes from the Old Testament from the art dealer and writer, Ambroise Vollard. Painted in 1957, the present work echoes Chagall’s continued search for profound reflection in life and in art, which he revisited from the mid-1950s until 1966 through a series of large paintings, which comprised his Biblical Message. In the artist’s own words: ‘For me perfection in art and in life comes from this Biblical source. Without this spirit, the mechanics of logic and constructivity in art, as in life, cannot bear fruit,’ (quoted in ‘The Biblical Message’ in Chagall: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 295).

Interrogating the metaphysical potential of paint, Chagall creates a unique iconography that elucidates a Heideggerian philosophy, presenting the ordinary and the extraordinary as intrinsically aligned. That is to say that the Biblical message of extraordinary miracles are brought into being in the sphere of the everyday. Chagall’s work seeks to transcend modern aesthetics as the artist infuses this paintings with poetic and religious insight that tests the bounds of paint as a medium, elevating it to a realm in which the meaning of the work comes from the viewer’s personal engagement. Chagall wrote: ‘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.’ (quoted in Ibid. p. 295).

Through his radical modernist aesthetic and iconic symbolism, La Traversée de la Mer Rouge is a powerfully evocative composition that reveals the psychological and spiritual needs of his time.

This work is most likely a study of the large-scale œuvre, La Traversée de la Mer Rouge (1955), which is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale