The present work was executed during Chagall’s second period in France, where he returned in 1923 and remained until his move to the United States during the Second World War. During Chagall’s years in France, his subjects were divided between those inspired by his adopted country and those reminiscent of his native Russia, with the two often combined in his phantasmagorical compositions. Chagall had first arrived in France in the summer of 1910 at the age of 23. Within his first two days in Paris, he visited the Salon des Indépendants and there he saw the work of a panoply of contemporary artists, including the Fauves and the Cubists. Paintings by Derain, Léger, Matisse and Picasso hung alongside the vibrant Orphist canvases of Robert Delaunay, who was to become the mentor of Paul Klee, August Macke, and Chagall himself. Very soon he had moved into lodgings in the legendary block of studios known as La Rûche on the rue Vaugirard in Montparnasse, a building famed for its lively bohemian atmosphere and its cosmopolitan array of inhabitants. Chagall lodged in the room next to Modigliani; Soutine also lived in the building during this time. The poets Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and Canudo frequently visited. In this milieu of spontaneity and rich cultural exchange, Chagall began his first period of painting in Paris.
Shortly before his first departure from Russia, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld; they would be engaged within a year. During his four years in Paris, they corresponded frequently and his homesickness for Russia was enmeshed in his desire for his distant fiancée. After travelling to Berlin in mid-1914 for an exhibition of his works, Chagall travelled on to Vitebsk for what was to be a three-month visit, however the outbreak of World War I and the ensuing revolution in Russia would keep Chagall away from Paris for almost a decade. While unable to leave Russia, these years would prove to be some of the most important of Chagall’s life. Shortly after his return to Vitebsk, he and Bella would marry and, a year later, their only child, a daughter named Ida, was born. Moving primarily between Vitebesk and Petrograd (St. Petersburg) during these years, Chagall’s painting would continue to undergo remarkable transformations.
Another work entitled Les Amoureux, painted in 1913-14 during his first sojourn to Paris, also depicts an embracing couple. The male and female figure are heavily abstracted and placed in an interior with a view out over a village, likely a depiction of Vitebsk. Even at this early date foliage and blossoms, as well as a small bird, make their way into the canvas and surround the lovers placed in the center of the composition. After Chagall’s return to Russia and his marriage to Bella, paintings depicting the couple dominated his work. In 1916-17 he created four oils of the two embracing on abstracted backgrounds: Amoureux en rose, Amoureux en vert, Les Amoureux (on a blue background) and Amoureux en gris, followed in 1917 by a monumental depiction of Bella, Bella à col blanc, looking out over a forest where Chagall and Ida stand in miniature in the foreground.
It was in these years that the couple in flight – a trope that would become recognized as one of the artist’s prime pictorial devices in later years - became firmly established. Au-dessus de la ville, La Promenade and L’Anniversaire all feature the Chagalls floating above the pull of gravity with idealized views of their village, environs and home respectively as backdrop. L’Anniversaire, first painted in 1915, was recreated by the artist in 1923 in a closely related canvas. Bella recalled the scene in later years, evoked by her appearance at Chagall’s apartment on his birthday. When he saw her he demanded that she stand still and, as she recounts, he began to paint: “But what shall I do with the flowers? I cannot stay standing on the same spot. I want to put them in water or they will fade. But I soon forget them. You throw yourself upon the canvas which trembles under your hand. You snatch the brushes and squeeze out the paint—red, blue, white, black. You drag me into the stream of colors. Suddenly you lift me off the ground and push with your foot as if you feel too cramped in the little room. You leap, stretch out at full length, and fly up to the ceiling. Your head is turned to me. I listen to the melody of your soft, deep voice. I can even hear the song in your eyes. And together we rise to the ceiling of the gaily decked room and fly away. We reach the window and want to pass through. Through the window, clouds and blue sky beckon us. The walls, hung with my colored shawls, flutter about us and make our heads swim. Fields of flowers, houses, roofs, churches, swim beneath us” (B. Chagall, Di ershte bagegenish, New York, 1947; translated in I. Chagall, Lumières allumées, Paris, 1973, pp. 258-59).
On the first day of September in 1923, Chagall, Bella and Ida arrived in Paris. France would remain their home until World War II forced them to flee to the United States in 1941. These years in France were particularly fruitful for Chagall. He had been gone for nine years and when he arrived in Paris he found a new equilibrium of mind, a peaceful atmosphere and an audience. Many of his former friends believed he had disappeared in the Russian Revolution (his old studio was badly looted as a result). Among those welcoming him back were the young Surrealists, and Chagall in turn was pleasantly surprised to find that they stood for a changing attitude towards the sort of dream-like poetic painting he had pioneered many years before. “Chagall’s return to Paris coincided with the emergence of the Surrealist movement in art and literature, led by the poet André Breton. The Surrealists heralded Chagall as a prophetic synthesizer of poem and image and a pioneering explorer of the antirational realms of dream, fantasy, and imagination. Chagall was flattered by this lionization and initially subscribed to the surrealist program. However, he quickly broke with that movement, repudiating its doctrines as excessively literary and antithetical to art as he understood it” (A. Kagan, Marc Chagall, New York, 1989, pp. 53-56). Turning down the invitation to join their ranks he instead concentrated on a major commission he had received from Ambroise Vollard to illustrate Gogol’s Dead Souls. Regardless of his lack of participation in the Surrealist group his influence can be seen throughout their work from ambiguous space to collections of objects. The moon and sky of the present work draw strong ties to René Magritte’s compositions of later years.
With his great love with him in France, Chagall was able to fully enjoy his adopted country. Andrew Kagan comments on the sweetness of this time for the artist writing: “This was a period [the mid-to-late 1920s] of unrivaled happiness and contentment for Chagall. He and Bella were able to discover the joys of traveling throughout France, where the artist fell in love with the varied landscapes and the distinctive effects of light. These journeys yielded works with a brilliant new illumination and an unprecedented airiness…There also appeared paintings of intense color and lyric forms, such as Lovers with Flowers, which express the renewed spirit of romance and youthfulness that he and Bella found in their pleasant new circumstances” (ibid., p. 53). In Les Amoureux, Chagall’s love of his new country is embodied in the incorporation of the colors of the French flag in Bella’s dress. The nipped-in waist of her garment is punctuated with small red dots, and beneath the darker ruby color of her skirt, a delicate filigree of organic shapes is visible. Just to the left, glimpsed through the greenery, a ghostly shadow of a village peers through the leaves. The tenderness of the couple’s embrace and the ambiguity of the space they are placed in – appearing to float through the night sky – draw together the best qualities of his work. All of the portraits of he and Bella together during their time in Russia were now imbued with a peace and tenderness in this new stage of their life together.
That happiness is the central theme here. The dream-like space in which the scene is set echoes the way the artist spoke of Bella and France: “I had only to open my bedroom window, and blue air, love and flowers flooded in” (quoted in J. Leymarie, Marc Chagall (exhibition catalogue), Grand Palais, Paris, 1969). The association between lovers and flowers, which is another recurring image in his work, took on a new significance around 1924, when Chagall discovered the beauty of the landscape in the Seine valley, which he explored with his friends Robert and Sonia Delaunay on the long walks they took together, and the profusion of the flowers in the South of France which he visited that year. André Breton discussed the ephemeral nature of Chagall’s painting stating: “No work was ever so resolutely magical: its splendid prismatic colors sweep away and transfigure the torment of today and at the same time preserve the age old spirit of ingenuity in expressing everything which proclaims the pleasure principle: flowers an expression of love” (reproduced in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Op. Cit., New York, 1995, p. 153).
Les Amoureux has distinguished provenance. The legendary Parisian gallery Bernheim Jeune & Cie acquired this work from the artist the year it was painted and, also in 1928, a private collector purchased the work from the gallery. Les Amoureux has remained in the same family’s collection since that time.
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