When Chagall returned to Paris from the United States in August 1948 he was met with adulation, celebrated as one of the country's great modern artists alongside Picasso and Matisse and granted a room of his own in the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of that year. The return also marked a lightening of tone in his work. With his exile over and the period of mourning for Bella drawing to a natural close, he decided to resettle in Saint-Paul-de-Vence where he bought a house overlooking the sea. Chagall found the light and color of the south irresistible, like so many artists before him, and it was to remain his principal home to the end of his life. Visitors to his studio would always remember the flowers.
As Chagall himself once stated, "As I got nearer to the Côte d’Azur, I experienced a feeling of regeneration, something I hadn’t felt since childhood. The smell of flowers, a sort of new energy poured through me... Perhaps I am feeling the years, but anyway this place has become to me like my hometown Vitebsk. As if I was rejuvenated, and that I was waiting for something. And this flower-filled world colored my new life" (quoted in Marc Chagall, Rétrospective 1908-1985 (exhibition catalogue), Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 2015, p. 48).
Le Ciel embrasé and Chagall's iconic painting Les Toits rouges both use intense Mediterranean reds and yellows in a composition bisected by a diagonal band of Vitebsk rooftops with the figures of bride and groom lower right (see fig. 1). Contributing to the new impetus in his work at this time was his meeting with Varvara Brodsky in 1952, an energetic young Ukrainian whom he married a few months after executing the present work. The unusually poetic title is a testament to this period of contentment which was characterized in his work by a freer and more sensuous style, as Chagall acknowledged in a lecture delivered in 1958: "Upon my return to France, at the end of the war, I had the vision of glowing colors, not decorative and screaming ones, and I rediscovered Claude Monet, with his natural source of colors. Now I feel the presence of a color which is the color of love" (quoted in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Chagall, A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 181).
As a child, Chagall’s instinct was to climb up walls or onto the rooftops to get a better view of his town. On encountering Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism in the 1910s, he recognized immediately that all these conceptions were “too terrestrial” for him. His natural attraction to the celestial is evident throughout his career and Le Ciel embrasé is a superb mature example of this consistently spiritual approach: “Painting should have a psychical content. I destroy any decorative impulse… The psyche should get into the paint. You must work the painting with the thought that something of your soul penetrates it and gives it substance. A picture should be born and bloom like a living thing” (Marc Chagall & Charles Sorlier, eds., Chagall by Chagall, New York, 1979, p. 54).