The Comité Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Evoking one of the most enduring themes of Marc Chagall's art, Le départ d'arlequin captures the magic atmosphere of the circus. Facing the viewer, a harlequin waves a bouquet of flowers, one leg stretched into a ballet pose of salutation. Behind him, a horse rests for the following act: a riding girl standing nearby is waiting for her turn to amaze the audience with her equestrian tricks and stunts. In the picture, however, there is no audience, nor any glaring spotlights. Instead, the moon bestows on the scene a melancholic green light; a raven hovers above, as a dove below flies out of the frame. It is a night circus, lost in an undefined space, a poetic, mirage-like vision.
In 1967 - the year before he started painting Le départ d'arlequin - Chagall published a series of lithographs under the title Le cirque. Ambroise Vollard had commissioned the series in the 1920s, when he took Chagall to the 'Cirque d'hiver', in Paris. Even though Chagall's fascination for the circus can certainly be connected to those years, the theme had its origin in the artist's childhood. In a text that magically resonates with Le départ d'arlequin, Chagall recalled those first encounters. He narrated the lasting souvenir of a boy and a girl climbing up a pole held in their father's mouth and that of 'another little girl', in a bare courtyard, who looked 'like a bareback rider without a horse', as her 'transparent body stocking glistened' (M. Chagall, 'The Circus', pp. 196-198, in Chagall: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1995, p. 197). 'These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions', Chagall wrote, 'Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces?' (ibid.).
Although circus creatures vividly populated Chagall's art throughout his career, in the 1950s and 1960s the subject acquired a graver significance, reflecting the traumas and fragile hopes the Second World War had left behind. The joy and energy of the circus - symbolically representing artistic creation - is presented at odds with sombre, melancholic atmospheres. In 1957, for example, Chagall painted Les saltimbanques dans la nuit: staggering through the night, a group of artists and musicians advance under a dark moon. A decade later, in Le cirque sur fond noir Chagall depicted the same dazzle of acrobats and clowns he had portrayed before in festive, crowded arenas; yet in that picture the group is set against the backdrop of a deserted, silent village - possibly the artist's native town Vitebsk - while a ghostly Eiffel Tower hovers in the sky. With its bare, dark surroundings, Le départ d'arlequin breathes a similar air of magic, nostalgia and melancholy.
In post-war France, for Chagall the circus came to symbolize something deeper and more complex than a simple joyful, folkloristic fair or vague childhood memory. It stood for a world that, alongside comedy, let tragedy thrive: 'the most poignant cry in man's search for amusement and joy' (ibid.). Le départ d'arlequin could perhaps be seen under this light: the final bow of one illusion before the surge of the next dream of happiness. As a symbol of the human condition, the circus acquired a mystical, religious meaning for Chagall: 'I have always thought of clowns, acrobats and actors as tragically human beings who, for me, are like characters in certain religious paintings' (ibid, p. 198). Hope, however, is not abandoned. In 1957 Chagall wrote to his friend Daniel Charny: 'I beg you not to be a pessimist - life is always beautiful even though it is sad' (M. Chagall, quoted in J. Wullschlager, Chagall, Love and Exile, London, 2008, p. 488).
In 1967, the same year Chagall published Le Cirque and just before he started painting Le départ d'arlequin, he donated the series of paintings Message biblique to the Musée du Louvre. Throughout the 1960s Chagall worked on several large-scale projects - murals, mosaics and stained glasses - often exploring religious themes. With its mystical undertones and sense of dream-like gravity, Le départ d'arlequin resonates with those important works, while also reaffirming one of Chagall's most suggestive motifs: the magical, joyful sadness of the circus, its creatures and its characters.