The present work was executed during Chagall’s later years in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the city Chagall chose to make his permanent home after many years of a semi-nomadic life moving from Russia to France and the United States. Le Peintre au double-profil stems from a time when the artist was nostalgic for his youth while celebrating the joyful and tranquil life he made in Saint-Paul-de-Vence with his second wife Vava. Now in his nineties, Chagall had lived through two World Wars and witnessed a panoply of artistic movements. Widely acclaimed and sought after, he could reflect in comfort on his artistic success, a position consolidated in the 1970s by the opening of the Musée national message biblique Marc Chagall in Nice in 1973 and by the presentation of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1977. Having reached the apogee of international status, Chagall exhibited a sense of maturity and confidence in his later years.
In the 1920s Chagall came into contact with the Surrealists but chose to maintain a distance between them as he did not agree with their intellectualization of painting. Art, for Chagall, was the manifestation of emotion, imagination and nostalgia. Decades later, this almost magical canvas is the result of his immediate expression rather than the product of any particular reflection. Presenting the ordinary with the extraordinary came naturally to Chagall, allowing his paintings to transcend above the normal and cement his signature aesthetic (see fig. 1). 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 Chagall: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 295).
Chagall conceived much of his late work as a return to his beginnings—the spark of first love, the reclamation of a child-like excitement with which to greet life’s simplest pleasures, while paying heed to the passing sadness of transience and loss. Painted in 1981 nearing the end of the artist’s long life, Le Peintre au double-profil, contains many of Chagall's most favored motifs and themes. Flowers, longing and an overarching dreamlike strangeness are brought vividly to life by the range of fantastical characters that populate this canvas. A vibrant bouquet of flowers floats around the composition, a motif which Chagall had employed since the 1920s. An all-encompassing blue sapphire pigment sets the ethereal stage, meanwhile, emphasizing the artist’s pictorial iconography. In his later years Chagall rigorously pursued the figure of the artist at work. Schneider once remarked to Chagall “’In your pictures, the painter is always represented as being young.’ ‘If it weren’t so,’ Chagall replied, ‘it would be useless to work’” (quoted in Chagall (exhibition catalogue), Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1979, n.p.).
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