The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Chagall always carried the memory, going back to his years as a young man in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, of having watched a father and his young children, members of an indigent family hoping to earn a few pennies for bread, performing some simple but strenuous acrobatic stunts for the passing public. Their efforts, however, were deemed more pathetic than applaudable, and Chagall sadly watched as afterwards they walked away, unappreciated and empty-handed. This just might be the fate of anyone--Chagall must have pondered, perhaps then or sometime later in his career--who fancied for himself the life of an artist: "It seemed as if I had been the one bowing up there" (from "The Circus"). Indeed, Chagall's experience of clowns, acrobats and young ladies riding bareback on horses--the very idea of the circus--lay at the heart of his personal mythology.
There were more exciting professional performers and their acts to be seen in Paris, where Chagall arrived in June 1911, at the famed Cirque Médrano on the edge of Montmartre and the Cirque d'Hiver in the 11ème arrondissement. Chagall painted two notable pictures of female acrobats before returning to Russia via Berlin in mid-1914, including the gouache Les trois acrobates-- the first version of the present subject--(see F. Meyer, op. cit., no. 155 [illus.]), and L'Acrobate (fig. 1). Chagall thereby joined a long and distinguished line of Impressionist and Modern painters working in France who featured the circus in their work, including Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec--and among his contemporaries--Picasso, Rouault, van Dongen and Léger.
In September 1923, Chagall and his family returned to Paris, having left the Soviet Union in the summer of 1922 and following a year-long stay in Berlin. Since the end of the First World War in 1918 the artist's Parisian friends had been clamoring for his return. As much as Chagall loved Russia, and did not want to abandon his native land during the great revolution that was then re-shaping its destiny, he was nevertheless certain that the best path to developing and showing his art required that he live and paint in the West. But now back in Paris Chagall found himself in an unexpected and frustrating situation. People continued to talk about the magical modernist paintings he had painted in Paris before the war, and the artists and poets of the nascent surrealist movement were now touting them as harbingers of their own experimental exploration of dreams and the subconscious. This acclaim revealed for the artist a serious deficiency, in fact, a real problem: Chagall neither possessed nor had access to many of his favorite and best-known images. He had no choice but to leave many fine works behind when he departed Russia. He had dispatched a number of early Paris paintings to an exhibition in Amsterdam on the eve of the First World War, and there they remained after he went back to Russia. Most were sold and dispersed. He left a stack of Paris canvases under his bed in "La Ruche," ("The Beehive"), the dilapidated artist's building where he had his pre-war studio. The authorities had taken over these rooms to house refugees during the war, but not before his friends were able to remove the paintings, which they sold as best they could, with many going to the collector and critic Gustave Coquiot, who at least had them properly conserved and framed.
Most irksome of all was the group of nearly forty paintings he had sent in 1914, a couple of months before the outbreak of the war--on the advice of his friend Guillaume Apollinaire--to Herwarth Walden for an exhibition in June at his Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin. Following the show Chagall and his wife Bella traveled to Vitebsk for his sister's wedding, and became stuck in Russia when the war broke out on August 1st. Now, having finally returned to Berlin from the new Soviet Union, he claimed compensation for the paintings Walden had sold, and wanted them returned to him any that remained in the dealer's possession. Chagall spent much of his extended layover in the German capital trying to recover these valuable paintings. Walden offered him a paltry sum in badly devalued Deutschmarks as compensation, which Chagall refused, and sued Walden instead. After lengthy legal proceedings Chagall lost the case, although the dealer's wife Nelly eventually returned three paintings following her divorce from Walden.
Franz Meyer listed the early version of the three acrobats as having formerly been in a Hanover collection (its present location is unknown), and in light of this fact, the picture was probably among the group caught by the war in Berlin and sold to German collectors. Soon after his return to Paris, Chagall rented a studio of suitable size, which he did not have in Berlin, and began to paint again. He had already begun working on a commission from the Paris dealer Ambroise Vollard to create etchings for an illustrated edition of Gogol's Dead Souls. The artist now also embarked on an urgent project to recreate his plundered artistic past. From memory and sketches, and occasionally from photographs if they existed, he reconstructed a series of compositions that he had originally painted during his first Paris trip, Les trois acrobates of 1913-1914 among them. "The variants are not quite so true to the originals," Meyer has written. "Since in most cases Chagall painted them without having the originals before his eyes, he transposed the old motif into a new rhythm and a new color scheme though probably, as a rule, that was not his intention." In the earlier version of the three acrobats, Chagall painted an arc-like line in the background to indicate the circus ring. He dispensed with this motif in the present Les trois acrobates, in preference for a stage-like setting, which even has the appearance of a magic carpet. "These variants," Meyer noted, "were executed between autumn, 1923, and well into 1926" (ibid., p. 333).
Following the Gogol etchings, Vollard asked Chagall to provide a series of gouaches illustrating the Fables of La Fontaine. Chagall went on to produce one hundred sheets in all. While the Fables were in progress, Vollard and Chagall, living on either side of the Bois de Boulogne, frequently visited one another following a stroll through the wood. In 1927, as Chagall was finishing this project, Vollard proposed yet another, this time a suite of gouaches based on the theme of the circus. Vollard may have seen the newly painted Les trois acrobates, which conceivably could have inspired him to suggest the circus idea to Chagall. The artist earned 192,000 francs for the Fables gouaches, which Vollard then sold to Galerie Bernheim-Jeune for more than twice that amount. As a further incentive for the circus series, Vollard offered Chagall free use of his box at the Cirque d'Hiver, of which the artist happily availed himself, "because the circus was a lovely place to take his daughter. Marc was as childishly delighted with it as Ida," Sidney Alexander has written. "The distortions, the violations of normalcy, the clowns (was he not himself a clown with his grimaces, pale cheeks, flickering movements?), the equilibrists, flying angels, pathetic monsters--all these creatures seem to have crept out of Chagall's pictures into the ring. They were naturally Chagallian. To divest them of Vitebsk greatcoats and peel onto those lean shanks the particolored hose of the equilibrists; to take Grandpa off the roof and balance him on a high wire--all this was easy Chagallian magic" (Chagall: A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 292).
Chagall painted the circus series in two sets, nineteen gouaches in all, which became known the Cirque Vollard (Meyer, nos. 481-501; e.g., figs. 2 and 3). The artist based many of these works on sketches he drew while enjoying the spectacle of the Cirque d'Hiver, which featured some of the finest troupes and performances to be seen anywhere in Europe. The sheer exhilaration of these pictures, their exuberant, unalloyed joy and life-affirming spirit, contrasts sharply with the darker clowns and circus queens of Rouault, another artist who produced illustrations on the circus theme for Vollard. Alexander wrote that for Chagall the circus was "love reflected in a distorting mirror." The circus brought out the very essence of the artist: "Chagall is a strategic clown," Alexander explained. "He cultivates the white powdered gamin face, the unexpected dance-like movements, he looks not infrequently like Charlie Chaplin or Harpo Marx...Distrusting logic and coherence, he coherently employs illogic in defense as a shield. He guards his world by pretending inconsequence; he is a calculating mystic, a mixture of Mithnaged and Chassid, of the rule of law and the virtues of lawlessness, of conservation and abdication, of head and heart" (ibid.). Writing some thirty years after Alexander, Jackie Wullschlager also drew attention to the Chaplinesque aspect in Chagall, "The only artist he identified with, he said in the 1920s, was Charlie Chaplin--whom he saw as a secular sort of the holy fool of the Hasidim. 'Chaplin seeks to do in film what I am trying to do in my paintings,' he told Jacques Guenne in 1927" (Chagall: A Biography, New York, 2008, p. 336).
The gouaches of the Cirque Vollard series, as well as the oil paintings that attended and followed on them (fig. 4) reflect the profound sense of security and well-being Chagall now gratefully associated with his new life in France during the mid- and late 1920s. After a decade of living unsettled and on the move--subject first to the turmoil of the First World War, then violent revolution in Russia, and, almost as bad, the political upheaval and economic instability in post-Kaiserine Germany--Chagall had finally found the stable, centered qualities of life he had been seeking for his family, himself and his work. Since his resettlement in France, there had been, as he had hoped, some promising developments in his career: in 1926 Chagall had been given his debut exhibition in New York, at the Reinhardt Gallery, and in Paris, Bernheim-Jeune virtually underwrote his future when they signed a contract for his work. "His painting during that halcyon decade--dancing at the edge of an abyss--tended to become more fluid," Alexander observed, "the colors sweeter, the contours softer, the rhythms more feathery. The Cubist grid softens, wavers, disappears. Line gives way to a cloudy nuance, statement to suggestion" (op. cit., p. 292).
While painting the gouaches for Fontaine's Fables, Chagall developed an abiding love for the beauty of the French landscape. Moreover, having lived in the Ile-de-France, the Auvergne and on the Mediterranean coast, sometimes away from Paris for weeks at a time, he found the pace of country living and indeed the people themselves very much to his liking. All these experiences were far removed from the more primitive conditions he had known growing up in Russia, where he was also subject to a harsh and unrelenting tradition of anti-Semitism. Chagall had witnessed the impact of widespread famine in Russia during the early 1920s; the agrarian populace suffered yet again late in the decade as the Soviet communist regime brutally imposed its program of forced collectivization. Working on the circus pictures led Chagall to further appreciate the pleasures of popular cultural life in Paris. Wullschlager has noted that the circus pictures, in sum, "fuse the rural and flower motifs of the mid-1920s with the metropolitan milieu of the circus, reflecting the artist's own division between the French countryside and Parisian social life. The theme also took him back through the French tradition--from Degas to Watteau, one of Chagall's favorite painters--and to his own Russian work: the acrobats in the murals for the Moscow Jewish Theatre of 1920 (fig. 5)" (op. cit., p. 336).
The circus subjects that Chagall developed in 1926-1930 would continue to bear fruit for the next half century of this artist's amazingly long life (when he died in 1985, Chagall was but a few months short of his 98th birthday). Only his most devoted enthusiasts would resist the charge that in his later workings of the circus theme Chagall might easily cross over into a realm where nostalgia and heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality too strongly prevail. However, these paintings of the 1920s have in their unexpected twists--in Les trois acrobates, for example, the girl's can-can-like contortionist stance, and the bemused admiration of her male partners--a vital spontaneity, freshness and gentle humor that perfectly suit their subjects. There is also an engaging measure of that poignantly lyrical element, tinged with introspection and melancholy, which one prizes in Chagall, stemming from his profound awareness of the fragility of life, and the lurking presence of a tragic dimension that heightens one's awareness of the wondrous complexity of being here and now. These thoughts permeate the text Chagall wrote in his homage to the circus, which was included in the catalogue for the above-mentioned Pierre Matisse exhibition of 1981, and is cited in excerpts here:
"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.
"But what do most of these circus people earn? A piece of bread. Night brings them solitude, sadness. Until the next day when the evening flooded with electric lights announces a new old-life.
"The circus seems to me like the most tragic show on earth.
"Through the centuries, it [the circus] has been the most poignant cry in a man's search for amusement and joy. It often takes the form of high poetry. I seem to see a Don Quixote in search of an ideal, like an inspired clown who wept and dreamed of human love.
"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.
"I have always thought of clowns, acrobats and actors as tragically human beings who, for me, are like characters in certain religious paintings."
(from "The Circus" in Marc Chagall, Le Cirque: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1981).
Shedding light on Chagall's connection between circus people and figures in religious art, Wullschlager has written: "The evolution of his circus works reflects a gradual clouding of his worldview, and the circus performer now gave way the prophet or sage in his work--a figure into whom Chagall poured his anxiety as Europe darkened, and he could no longer rely on the lumière-liberté of France for inspiration" (op. cit., p. 337).
Marc Chagall, Ambroise Vollard, Ida and Bella Chagall, Paris, 1924. Collection Ida Chagall, Paris.
Marc Chagall, Paris, 1925. National and University Library, Jerusalem.
(fig. 1) Marc Chagall, L'Acrobate, 1914. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
(fig. 2) Marc Chagall, L'Acrobate à cheval, 1927-1928. Sold, Christie's, New York, 7 November 2007, lot 143.
(fig. 3) Marc Chagall, Clown à cheval, 1927-1928. Sold, Christie's, New York, 22 October 1980, lot 369.
(fig. 4) Marc Chagall, L'Acrobate, 1930. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
(fig. 5) Marc Chagall, Introduction au Théâtre juif, 1920 (detail). Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow.