‘I owe what I have done well to Paris, to France, whose air, whose men and whose nature have been the true school of my life and my art’ – Marc Chagall (quoted in J. Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, London, 2008, p. 324).
Painted in 1926, Marc Chagall’s Fleurs en Mourillon illustrates the important shift that occurred in the artist’s work during the late 1920s, inspired by the joy and contentment he found in his new life in France. Having spent years leading a nomadic existence, which had seen the artist and his wife move more than a dozen times through three countries since the start of their marriage, Chagall and his family were finally able to settle in an apartment on the avenue d’Orléans in the 14th arrondissement of Paris in 1923. Their days living in run-down communal flats and tiny damp rooms were finally at an end, and the French capital soon became a safe haven for the family, offering them a home and a sense of comfort after years of struggle. Paris was just beginning to regain its vibrant, pre-war energy, and Chagall soon fell in with a cosmopolitan, avant-garde group of friends, which included the painters Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the dealer Ambroise Vollard, the critic Florent Fels, and the poets Ivan and Claire Goll. As he immersed himself in French life once again, the artist began to adopt a softer approach to painting, eschewing the sharp angles and discordant colours of his Russian years, in favour of a more romantic, diffused play of light and colour.
Whereas during his first trip to France, Chagall had focused principally on the city, rarely venturing outside the limits of Paris, he now took every opportunity to travel around the country, keen to immerse himself in nature and the artistic heritage of the French landscape. ‘I want an art of the earth and not merely an art of the head,’ he explained to Florent Fels, when questioned on this new direction on his art (Chagall, quoted in F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, Life and Work, London, 1964, p. 337). Together, Chagall and his family frequently travelled to the Île-de-France, the land immortalised in the art of Monet and Pissarro, Cézanne and Sisley. Relishing the natural beauty of the area and the simplicity of life in the countryside, the Chagalls rented rooms in the small hamlet of Montchauvet in the hilly farmland between the Seine and Oise rivers, spending time in the company of the Delaunays and Fels. Chagall’s creativity blossomed in these surroundings, the idyllic landscapes and rich fecundity of the countryside inspiring him to pursue an array of new motifs that would fuel his art for years to come.
During the summer of 1925, Chagall was slowly bringing to completion his series of etchings based on Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls for the dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard. The rural motifs that filled the paintings that Chagall made on his journeys through the French countryside during that summer gave Vollard the idea for the next series of illustrations he would commission from Chagall: La Fontaine's Fables. Having fallen in love with the attractions of the French countryside, Chagall decided that he would undertake these gouaches while working in the same kind of rural environment that had inspired La Fontaine three centuries earlier. He travelled south with Bella in the spring of 1926, stopping first at Mourillon, a small fishing village on the Mediterranean, which is now incorporated within the sprawling port of Toulon. They remained there until the summer, staying with Georges Duthuit and his wife Marguerite, the daughter of Henri Matisse, in a small pension known as La Reserve that overlooked the sea.
This journey proved revelatory for Chagall. This was his first encounter with the Mediterranean coast of France, and like countless painters before him, the artist was immediately struck by the brilliant light, the bold colours, and the profuse array of semi-tropical flora that grew in great abundance in this sun-soaked landscape. ‘There in the South, for the first time in my life,’ he recalled, ‘I came into contact with a flower-filled greenery such as I had never seen in my native city’ (Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 172). Indeed, it was during this sojourn that one of the most important motifs of Chagall’s career was to emerge – the large, effusive bouquets of freshly-cut flowers and foliage, at the very height of their fleeting beauty, which would dominate his canvases for years to come. Inspired by the fresh blooms Bella purchased on her daily trips to the local market, these compositions focus on lavish bunches of campanulas, peonies, roses and arum lilies that brought their rented rooms to life with their heady scent and lively colours. Typically painted in a heavy impasto, each petal captured in thick, energetic strokes of pigment, Chagall found in these bouquets a way to marry his search for a poetic, dreamlike language of painting with his desire to root his compositions in the unique atmosphere of the idyllic French countryside.
Described by the artist as ‘exercises in the equation of colour and light,’ these dramatic bouquets became a hallmark of Chagall’s oeuvre. It was the sheer beauty of these flowers, filled with such colour and life, which struck contemporary commentators, leading E. Tériade to exclaim: ‘To see the world through bouquets! Huge, monstrous bouquets in ringing profusion, haunting brilliance. Were we to see him only through these abundances gathered at random from gardens, harmonized who knows how, and naturally balanced, we could wish for no more precious joy! These are well-bred flowers, who have discovered connections and made slow and daring friendships. […] Chagall places in front of himself a heavy bouquet, nourished by clear saps and he captures its abundance. He allows himself to be invaded. In its near and constant presence, he eventually dozes. He dreams’ (E. Tériade, “Chagall and Romantic Painting,” 1926, reproduced in ibid, p. 136).
In Fleurs on Mourillon, Chagall enlarges the bouquet to enormous proportions, allowing it to fill the canvas with its vibrant, play of colours and heavily impastoed paint. Standing atop a simple table on the Chagall’s balcony at La Reserve, the flowers spill over the edge of the vase, their heavily textured blooms appearing in stark contrast to the thinly applied notes of colour in the rest of the composition. Indeed, everything else in the scene is captured in a dream-like haze, appearing like a mirage that may dissolve and disappear at any moment, leaving the bouquet floating in mid-air. At one end of the table, for example, the edge merges with the parapet of the balcony, while on the other side it fades away completely, the small bird perched on its invisible corner the only suggestion of its presence. Large portions of the canvas remain untouched, the view from their rented rooms delicately sketched in simple lines and clouds of a soft pigment, a series of tiny vignettes emerging from the pale blue background to frame the flowers. With these whimsical marginalia, Chagall captures a sense of the play of life that he observed in this seaside town, from the small row boats bobbing in the shallows of the water, to the well-dressed young woman promenading along the quays with a parasol, and in the far distance, just visible along the horizon line, a lone steam ship puffing along to an unknown destination. Enveloping the viewer in this serene, blissful world of colour, light and romanticism, this captivating composition illustrates the infectious joie de vivre Chagall felt during this period, a time he would later describe as the happiest of his life.