The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
The circus became one of Chagall's favorite subjects during his early years in Paris, and remained so throughout his career. His experience and memory of clowns, acrobats and young ladies on horseback lay at the heart of his personal mythology. He joined a long and distinguished line of Impressionist and modern painters who featured the circus in their work, including Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, Van Dongen and Léger. In 1927, as Chagall was finishing his series of one hundred gouaches based on the fables of La Fontaine, the dealer Ambroise Vollard, sponsor of this project, suggested that the artist undertake a second group of pictures, based this time on the theme of the circus. Chagall painted a suite of gouaches, Le cirque Vollard (Meyer, nos. 481-501), many of which were based on sketches that he drew while enjoying the spectacle of the Paris Cirque d'Hiver from Vollard's reserved box seats. The variety of the characters and their performing roles in these works provided elements to which the artist subsequently returned on many occasions.
Chagall painted Le cheval de cirque nearly four decades later, when he was in his late seventies. As in the case of Picasso, another painter whose late career eased into a lengthy and prolific Indian summer, Chagall created for himself a "theater of memory," in which he continuously conjured up images from the past and revisited them in his paintings. In his finest and most vigorous late works, the artist projects a preternaturally youthful persona, as he imagines and reconfigures his memories in scenarios both old and new, while often adding novel and surprising elements. Here the artist has painted himself into the foreground as the grinning clown who serves as master of ceremonies for the spectacle that unfolds behind him. A strange, sinister-looking long-haired beast--a Chagallian chimera--occupies the darkened upper left corner of the composition, suggesting that some primal mythic rite underpins the excitement of the circus. In the center of the ring a young girl wearing the crown of a princess daringly perches on a white horse, as trapeze-artists and acrobats tumble around her. She is perhaps like the Greek hero Bellerophon, who, mounted on the winged-steed Pegasus, vanquished the chimera, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. In 1968 the poet Louis Aragon noted that "In the Chagallian circuses, what indeed makes them incomparable, is that we are caught up in the movement of the woman circling the ring, she whose beauty is the beauty of danger" (quoted in J. Baal Teshuva, ed., op. cit., p. 196).
Chagall's circus pictures stand out among his subjects as being especially joyous and life-affirming. Nevertheless, the artist's experience of the circus was tinged with introspection and melancholy, feelings which are apparent in reminiscences he wrote in 1967:
"For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces? With them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colors and make-up, I can dream of painting new psychic distortions. It is a magic word, circus, a timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of a great art. The circus seems to me like the most tragic show on earth. I would like to go up to that bareback rider who has just reappeared, smiling; her dress, a bouquet of flowers. I would circle her with my flowered and unflowered years. On my knees, I would tell her wishes and dreams, not of this world. I would run after her to ask her how to live, how to escape from myself, from the world, whom to run to, where to go" (from "The Circus," in Marc Chagall, Le cirque: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1981).