The Comité Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Emerging from a misty blue haze, a woman adorned in flowers sits atop a horse, while an airborne violinist plays cross from her. Behind them stretches a rural street scene from Chagall’s beloved hometown, Vitebsk. With ridescent, delicate colours and soft brushstrokes, Chagall’s Jeune fille au cheval, painted in 1929, is a mirage of magical lyricism and blissful romance. Encompassing Chagall’s favoured themes of love, memory, music and fantasy, Jeune fille au cheval exemplifies the artist’s unique and deeply personal artistic vision, a beautifully composed painting that comes from a period of great happiness and stability for the artist.
Against a distinct background, a bare-breasted woman appears seated on a horse, appearing like a dreamlike apparition. Bejewelled with a necklace and holding a fan, her red hair sweeps behind her as she glides through this effervescent scene. She wears a dress of flowers, a symbol in Chagall’s work of romantic love. Franz Meyer, an authority on Chagall and his son-in-law, described Jeune fille au cheval as typifying a ‘new trend’ (F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, London, 1964, p. 372) that had emerged in Chagall’s art in the late 1920s. Suffused with softened colours and harmonious, rich light, Chagall’s works from this period have a soothing, gentle atmosphere. Filled with flowers, lovers or fiddlers, these works exude a magically poetic harmony. In Jeune fille au cheval the various components of the composition are unified through the delicate light, rich colours, and tender, romantic mood. The rich blue, dreamlike haze from which the image emerges could have developed from Chagall’s fascination with the French landscape, particularly the Côte d’Azur, which the artist had visited for the first time in 1926, three years before Jeune fille au cheval was painted. He absorbed the rich colours and glowing light of the Mediterranean coast, transposing them into his painting so imbuing it with a warm harmonious atmosphere. The gentle glow of light lends the painting a pictorial cohesion and compositional unity while evoking the fantastical, imaginary context.
The female horse rider in Jeune fille au cheval was a figure that Chagall had often used, particularly in the series of gouaches, Cirque Vollard, which had been commissioned by the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1927. Having often visited the Cirque d’Hiver together, Vollard suggested that Chagall illustrate scenes from the circus. The result was a shimmering array of brightly coloured, swirling acrobats and female horse riders. Awash with pageantry and spectacle, the style and theme of these initial gouaches developed into a number of oil paintings. In Jeune fille au cheval the woman depicted appears dressed as a circus performer, theatrically entering the scene with the background framing her. However, Chagall has transported her out of the circus, and instead she appears as a figment of a dream, placed within a magical, dreamlike context. Chagall has depicted a spectacle, but one that is a personal and imaginary scene of the artist’s dreams, memories and fantasies.
The magical idyll displayed in Jeune fille au cheval is however contrasted by the distinctive, detailed background of the painting. While Chagall’s figures often float in a formless, airy background, in this painting a village scene is carefully rendered. Chagall created a first version of this work, originally entitled Violin Music, in 1927. A year later he reworked this initial painting, adding more detail and a much more precise landscape, with the village much closer and larger in the background, resulting in Jeune fille au cheval. A pathway leads uphill to a vanishing point, a rarely seen feature of Chagall’s work. The archetypal Russian town is complete with the colourful spires and domes of Russian Orthodox churches. Chagall remained deeply connected to his Russian and Jewish heritage throughout his life, often including motifs and references from his childhood in his art; ‘The soil that nourished the roots of my art was Vitebsk’, he wrote, ‘... my paintings are memories’ (Chagall, quoted in J. Ball-Teshuva, Marc Chagall 1887-1985, Cologne, 1998, p. 19). Vitebsk and all the impressions associated with it emerge continuously in Chagall’s art. The violinist or fiddler, a traditional Jewish symbol that Chagall vividly recalled from his childhood, often appears in different forms. In Jeune fille au cheval a violinist appears as a figure floating above one of the red roofs of Vitebsk. While a reference to the artist’s heritage, the implication of music also contributes to the melodious, soothing atmosphere of the painting. In Franz Meyer’s words, ‘The girl’s charm is complementary to the delicate morning light on the Russian town, and the music of memory rising from the motif of Vitebsk becomes the music to which the rider is listening’ (F. Meyer, op. cit., London, 1964, p. 372).
Chagall once stated that the 1920s were ‘the happiest time of my life’ (Chagall, quoted in J. Wullschlager, Chagall Love and Exile, London, 2008, p. 333). By 1929, the year that Chagall painted Jeune fille au cheval, he was enjoying financial security and had a contract with the Parisian gallery, Bernheim-Jeune. Artistically he was considered one of the leading artists of the School of Paris, and was immersed in the Parisian art world, socialising with artists such as Vlaminck, Maillol and Bonnard. However, as the end of the decade approached, Chagall had begun to feel a yearning to reconnect with Russia and his Jewish roots. He wrote to a Jewish friend in 1929, while in the Savoy region of France with his wife Bella and daughter Ida, ‘There is not a single Jew here, or even a Russian. So we feel our Jewishness even more’ (Chagall, quoted in J. Wullschlager, op. cit., p. 342). With anti-Semitic feeling gradually building across Europe, Chagall felt an acute need to reconnect with his national identity. Within this context, the dreamlike, idyllic image of romance and imagination of Jeune fille au cheval is tinged with a heady sense of nostalgia and memory. ‘It is my whole life that is identified with my work, and it seems to me that I am the same even when I am sleeping’ (Chagall, quoted in J. Wullschlager, op. cit., p. 333). Indeed, Jeune fille au cheval presents Chagall’s life
and dreams, a beautiful glimpse into the artist’s imagination.