Painted circa 1966, L'hiver contains many of Chagall's most favoured motifs and themes. Music, flowers, romance and an overarching dreamlike strangeness that is brought vividly to life by the range of fantastical characters that people this canvas. A rooster-headed man playing on a wind instrument, a cellist riding on the back of a flying goat... And between them, a woman who appears to be a bride, decked largely in white and clutching a vast bouquet. Certainly, there is some atmosphere of surnaturel celebration in L'hiver, in part conjured by the wintery atmosphere and the cloak of dark night which enshrouds so much of the background.
It is nostalgia most of all that fills L'hiver and lends it its engaging charm. For in the buildings that are visible at the bottom of the canvas, we perceive not the houses of Chagall's adopted home, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, but rather his native Vitebsk. It was there, in what is now Belarus but which was formerly a part of the Russian Empire, that Chagall enjoyed his almost idyllic childhood. While that childhood was in many ways difficult, not least in terms of the finances of his family and the adversity that they faced as Jews within the largely-- and institutionally-- anti-Semitic Russian Empire, Chagall's memories of his distant past, the vanished way of life of his homeland and his lost former identity continued to haunt him for the rest of his life, emerging in dream-like, magical scenes such as that in L'hiver. This, of course, is not a direct transposition of his memories, but takes instead some of the essence, some of the spirit of that time and of his love for it. It is this character of nostalgia that permeates the painting. Although living in the often sun-kissed South of France, Chagall shows his hometown and depicts it with a longing love of snow, of the carpet of white. Just as he recalled with bittersweet fondness his mother feeding him gruel, so too the cold of the winters of yesteryear is forgotten, idealised, and becomes something mysterious and mystical, a wondrous backdrop to a scene of strange musical ritual and joy.
It is in looking at the whimsical arsenal of characters and objects that fill L'hiver and Chagall's other works that we perceive why, in former decades, he had been such a source of fascination to Guillaume Apollinaire and the Surrealists. But it is telling that Chagall retained a distance from that movement, from its intellectualisation. For him, art was something that emanated from emotions, not from thoughts. His strange and magical world, the carnival of scenes such as L'hiver-- these are the results of his feelings rather than the product of any particular mindset. These elements have collided in his mind, in a combination of dream and memory and even perhaps eccentricity. As he himself commented, 'If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing' (Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, Chagall: A Retrospective, Westport, 1995, p. 16). For Chagall, capturing this imaginary world of emotion on the canvas allowed him to share the love that he felt for mankind and, more specifically, for the most important of the partners in his life, and to translate it to his viewers, to share it, and thereby to invite others to partake of the joy of life that he himself felt.
In L'hiver, this magical world is made all the more vivid and electric by the contrast between the black and white that dominate so much of the canvas and the firework-like flashes of colour in the flowers and in the red outfit of the left-hand musician. To some degree, Chagall's appreciation of colour grew immensely during the latter half of his career, partly informed by his experiences in making stained glass windows. The use and manipulation of pure colour in those window is echoed here, adding a sense of bursting energy and vitality and sparkling magic to the canvas, emphasising the fact that this scene represents a joyous occasion, far indeed from the bleak midwinters that may have been experienced during his youth.