The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Chagall never forgot an incident going back to his years as a young man in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, when he looked on as a father and his young children, members of an indigent family hoping to earn a few pennies for bread, performed on the street some clumsy but strenuous acrobatic stunts. The passing public deemed their efforts more pathetic than applaudable, and Chagall sadly watched as they afterwards walked away, unappreciated and empty-handed. Then, and at certain other times during his career, Chagall must have pondered that this might similarly become the fate of anyone who fancied for himself the life of an artist: "It seemed as if I had been the one bowing up there" (from Chagall's 1967 text Le Cirque).
If, on the other hand, he were as an artist talented and fortunate enough, there might be an altogether more favorable outcome in store for him. Chagall summoned the experience of circus performance--clowns, acrobats and young ladies riding bareback on horses, the ringside stands brimming with spectators, the total spectacle of the circus, in all its colorful variety--as a vivid metaphor for the life he decided to lead. The vision and dream of the circus came to lie at the very heart of his personal mythology.
As the exuberant scenes in many of Chagall's circus paintings attest, the primary attraction for him in any circus, great or small, was the bareback rider. "All seem to be assembled here only for the glory of the bareback rider, her scintillation, the incitement of her revolutions," Louis Aragon has written of Chagall's circus scenes. "We are caught up in the movement of the woman circling the ring, she whose beauty is the beauty of danger, waiting for her to come around again, until all the men watching with bated breath reach the point of being jealous of the horse (in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, pp. 195-196).
Chagall's rider is typically an irresistible beauty, hardly more than a girl, who in her brief costume bestrides the back of a horse, which--given the inconsistencies of size and scale that are commonplace in this artist's magical world--is usually smaller than the rider herself, so lovely and larger than life was she in Chagall's infatuated gaze.
"I would like to go up to that bareback rider who has just reappeared, smiling; her dress, a bouquet of flowers," Chagall wrote in Le Cirque. "I would circle her with my flowered and unflowered years. On my knees, I would tell her my 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 early on and ever after, Chagall would invariably associate this girl of exceptional abilities with his feelings of longing and desire. Chagall's first teen love in Barcelona was the circus equestrienne Rosita. The young woman who would eventually fill his life in all the ways he was seeking was Bella Rosenfeld, his beloved first wife, whom he married in 1915. Their rapturous union ended with her death in 1944, but even after his second marriage in 1952, Bella remained the artist's eternal bride.
Chagall, in order to emphasize the fact that this painting is in every way a gift to Bella from him, of him, depicts his beloved bare-back rider in a most unusual way--he has exchanged places with her, so that he is now à cheval and she has become the admiring on-looker who lovingly appreciates his act, the momentous success of which we may gauge from his joyous dance of triumph atop the horse as she clangs a pair of cymbals in raucous applause. The musicians get in swing of things and play for all they are worth; the audience appears to be clapping in unison, cheering everyone on.
As the rider in Au Cirque, Chagall has assumed the guise of a boyish clown, who doesn't seem to be aware--or if he is, he rather likes the very daring idea--of the fact that he has left his costume behind in the dressing room and is standing stark naked before the world. One is reminded of a common dream we may experience from time to time, in which we unaccountably and most absurdly appear naked before everyone else, and are somehow able to pretend that no one really notices, or perhaps they just don't care as we act out the little play of our dream in their midst. The idea and act of revealing oneself also figured into Chagall's creative mythology: in every work the artist makes, he has taken one further step in exposing the treasure of his inner self to the world.
Compared to Vitebsk, Paris in the early years of the 20th century was a circus-goer's paradise, and when Chagall arrived there in June 1911 he discovered the far more exciting and artful professionals who drew crowds at the famed Cirque Médrano on the edge of Montmartre and the Cirque d'Hiver in the 11ème arrondissement. Chagall painted a notable picture of a female acrobat before returning to his homeland via Berlin in mid-1914 (fig. 1). He thereby joined a long and distinguished line of painters working in France who featured the circus in their work, a line stemming from Watteau--a favorite of Chagall--and thereafter including Daumier, Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and among his immediate contemporaries, Picasso, Rouault, Van Dongen and Léger.
Ambroise Vollard, Chagall's dealer and the publisher of his prints during the 1920s and 1930s, was a great aficionado of the circus. Following the series of Gogol Dead Souls etchings that the artist completed for him in 1925, Vollard asked Chagall to provide gouaches illustrating the Fables of La Fontaine. Chagall went on to produce one hundred sheets in all. 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.
The Fables gouaches had earned Chagall more than 190,000 francs; Vollard soon sold them to Galerie Bernheim-Jeune for more than twice that amount. Not that Chagall needed any further incentive, but Vollard moreover offered him free use of his season box at the Cirque d'Hiver, of which the artist happily availed himself, "because the circus was a lovely place to take his daughter," Sidney Alexander has written. "Marc was as childishly delighted with it as Ida" (Chagall: A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 292).
Chagall painted his circus series in two sets, nineteen gouaches in all, which became known the Cirque Vollard (Meyer, nos. 481-501; fig. 2). The artist based many of these works on sketches he drew while enjoying the spectacle of the Cirque d'Hiver. The sheer exhilaration of these pictures, their unalloyed joy and life-affirming spirit, contrasts sharply with the somber clowns and circus queens of Rouault, another artist who produced illustrations on the circus theme for Vollard.
The circus subjects that Chagall developed in 1926-1930 (fig. 3) would continue to bear fruit for the next half century of this artist's amazingly long life (fig. 4). Notwithstanding the irrepressible high spirits that everywhere burst forth in the present Au Cirque, and may always be savored in Chagall's treatment of this genre, the artist inwardly perceived a more serious side to this spectacle, a significant aspect of the circus dream that is equally present here if not so plainly expressed in paint, which may be best gleaned from thoughts that pervade the text Chagall wrote in his 1967 homage to the circus (Le Cirque, trans. Patsy Southgate, in Pierre Matisse Gallery, exh. cat., op. cit., 1981, n.p.), which is excerpted 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 a 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.
Marc and Bella Chagall, circa 1939. Photograph by Boris Lipnitzky. BARCODE: 28972136
(fig. 1) Marc Chagall, L'Acrobate, 1914. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. BARCODE: 28855521_fig
(fig. 2) Marc Chagall, L'acrobate à cheval, 1927-1928. Sold, Christie's, New York, 7 November 2007, lot 143. BARCODE: 25953312
(fig. 3) Marc Chagall, L'Ecuyère, ou Danseuse au cirque, 1929. Sold, Christie's, London, 20 June 2012, lot 12. BARCODE: 33896212
(fig. 4) Marc Chagall, Cirque au cheval rouge, 1968. Sold, Christie's, New York, 9 May 2007, lot 43. BARCODE: 25481495