The Comité Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Painted in 1956-1958, St. Jeannet is one of Marc Chagall's hymns to memory, to romance, to love, and crucially, to the South of France. This picture, which was executed on a large scale, stretching a metre and a half across, has been passed on by descent from the first owner, who acquired it directly from the artist himself. Across the expanse of the horizontal canvas, several of Chagall's oneiric motifs appear, including a bride-like figure, a horse and a woman carrying sheaves on her head and walking a dog, all floating in a dreamlike state above the landscape of the South of France. The scene contains both a pale sun and what appears to be a crescent moon, hinting at some twilit moment between night and day, a concept that is extended by the distinctive blue that dominates the palette. Meanwhile, a couple is shown in the upper left-hand corner, while the horse, an incandescent apparition in red blazing against the predominantly blue background, appears to be emerging from a bouquet of flowers, which have been captured with dabbed and impastoed brushstrokes resembling the effervescent, colourful explosions of fireworks in their intensity.
Romance was seldom far from Chagall's heart in his paintings, and is clearly the central driver in St. Jeannet. At the time that this picture was painted, he had entered a new period of stability in his life, having married his fellow Russian, Valentina Brodsky, Vava as she was nicknamed, who was to become a vital companion for him during the post-war years. She provided a stable presence for Chagall, as well as a breath of nostalgia, recalling his home and youth in what is now Belarus but then had formed part of White Russia. Chagall had already moved to the South of France a few years earlier with Virginia McNeil, whom he had met during his time in exile in the United States of America during the Second World War. However, it had taken him some time to come to include the region in his paintings, as Jackie Wullschlager explained in her recent biography of the artist:
'Only after he had settled into marriage to Vava did Chagall feel he had truly returned from exile to France and allow himself to luxuriate in the Mediterranean setting of his new home; he did not paint Vence, his home from 1949, until 1952' (J. Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, London, 2008, p. 483).
St. Jeannet portrays not Vence but instead one of its near-neighbours, a hilly town which would appear several times in Chagall's pictures over the years. Perhaps it was playing a role as a proxy, like Vence in its similarity to Chagall's hometown, Vitebsk, which had become a townscape of the mind, a backdrop infused with memories harking back to his youth. Certainly, the more rustic vernacular of the architecture visible in the cluster of houses in St. Jeannet recalls the stylised and subjective images of Vitebsk that had appeared in Chagall's pictures ever since he had left Russia, evoking the lost years and culture of his past, which had continued to haunt him so eloquently.
In his pictures of the South of France, such as St. Jeannet, Chagall has fused the bittersweet memories of his past with his contentedness in the present. Vence, and later Saint-Paul, as well as nearby towns like St. Jeannet, became the backdrop to his new life with Vava. Some of the Russian culture of his earlier years had now rooted itself in his life in the countryside, and he was able to explore and express feelings of loss in a new way, from a new perspective. That loss had been made all the more acute during the turmoil of the Second World War. Chagall was already living in France, in Gordes, near Avignon, when the invasion of the Low Countries and France began; he managed to stay there for some time, as he was in what would become the Vichy-controlled area; eventually, though, he took up the offer of Varian Fry, the American head of the Emergency Rescue Committee who had organised the flight to safety in exile of so many European artists who would have faced trouble under the Nazi regime, and was flown to New York after briefly being arrested in Marseilles.
Chagall spent some time in the United States, but this was a time of upheaval, as in 1944, Bella - his first wife and the great love of his life who had featured in his pictures for most of his life and career - died from an infection. Following the end of the Second World War, Chagall visited France again occasionally before moving back permanently in 1948 with Virginia McNeil, eventually settling in the South, where he was near the other great giants of his generation, such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, both of whom he would sometimes visit. However, it clearly took time for France to gestate emotionally in Chagall's mind. It was in his series of pictures based on Paris, where he had lived for some of his most important formative years as an artist in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and then of the South of France, that Chagall revealed his love for the country and, increasingly, allowed himself to reveal his own happiness and joie de vivre. While the ghost of Bella often reappeared in his pictures, an ideal love waiting for him on the other side of the veil, the impact of Vava, another voice from the old country, increasingly made itself felt in pictures that eloquently overlap and indeed reconcile these two very different layers of experience. It is in pictures such as St. Jeannet that the idiom of Chagall's earlier pictures has been reinvigorated by the life and light of the South of France.