The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
The fiddler is key image in the oeuvre of Marc Chagall, appearing most often as a wizened street musician, the provider of entertainment at shtetl weddings and other celebrations. Here, however, he is a young, serious Orpheus, playing the violin in lieu of a Greek lyre, as one of the several Muses of antiquity dedicated to music and poetry whispers into his ear. He represents artists of every kind—“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously declared in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873). From the hand of the donkey—one of Chagall’s favorite barnyard avatars—a book of poems is about tumble onto the fiddler’s head below. Chagall wrote poetry in Yiddish, and often corresponded with poets and other men of letters. He authored his own My Life (1922); his first wife Bella wrote several collections of stories and tales drawn from her life in Russia.
The couple spent their exile during the Second World War in New York—they felt at home in the Jewish cultural milieu that flourished in the city. Chagall acquired a house in upstate High Falls as their country retreat; there in 1944 a viral infection suddenly claimed Bella’s life. A year later the grieving artist met Virginia Haggard McNeil, an unhappily married woman 28 years his junior, the mother of a young daughter. They magically fell in love. Their son David was born 22 June 1946. Chagall hesitated to return to Europe, the cauldron of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he did not wish to live in America known only as an immigrant, “Jewish” artist. He never learned English. With the onset of the Cold War and the growing “Red-scare” frenzy in America, Chagall’s affiliations with anti-fascist, leftist Jewish organizations would have made him suspect. Europe, on the other hand, demonstrated after the war its high esteem for the artist’s international reputation by according him retrospectives in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Zürich, and Bern. Ida, Chagall’s 32-year-old daughter, convinced him to return to France.
Chagall, Virginia, her daughter Jean, and the toddler David arrived in Le Havre in August 1948. Ida met and drove them to “L’Aulnette”, the chalet-style house which she had found in Orgeval, near Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a short jaunt from Paris. The following month Chagall attended the 1948 Venice Biennale to receive the first prize for engraving. “L’Aulnette” soon became a meeting place for Paris poets and other literati, art historians, curators, and dealers, including the Greek-born art publisher Tériade, who was deeply knowledgeable in the cultures of Mediterranean antiquity.
Amid continuing post-war fuel shortages, the house in Orgeval proved difficult to heat in winter. Chagall welcomed Tériade’s invitation to come to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur, where the publisher lived for part of the year, to work on illustrations for Boccaccio’s Decameron. In January 1949, the artist, Virginia, and the children took rooms in a pension de famille and later rented a house near Tériade for their four-month stay in Saint-Jean. Chagall was long familiar with the light and climate of the Midi from previous sojourns along the coast, including those tense weeks spent in Marseille during the spring of 1941, when he, Bella, and Ida desperately awaited the exit papers that permitted passage to America.
“An explosion of new ideas was suddenly released at the sight of the Mediterranean,” Virginia recalled. “His store of ‘Chagall’ material was jolted and injected with new substance, producing a series of variations around a theme...the sea, the boats and flowers of St. Jean tumbled out in exuberant succession” (My Life with Chagall, New York, 1986, pp. 89-90). Chagall painted only gouaches in Saint-Jean, rich in dazzling ultramarine, cobalt, and cerulean hues; he created larger, even more elaborate compositions in oils on canvas following his return to Orgeval in May.
Chagall’s Orpheus emerges in Bouquet blanc aux nuages from the waves of a blue sea, which also waters a towering bouquet of roses and hydrangeas—floral displays are always in this artist’s paintings an effusive declaration of his love for la belle France, and a paean in praise of the liberal, aesthetic imagination which was fundamental to the nation’s artistic tradition. The Greeks and Romans regarded the donkey as a companion to wise Silenus, a son of Pan (Nature) and the teacher of Bacchus, the god of wine and ecstatic jubilation, all useful, contributing elements to an artist’s creativity. The deep blue tonality evokes a nocturnal, dreamlike quality, the intermingling of myth, memory, and metamorphosis. Chagall and Virginia returned to the Midi again later that year. Having decided to relocate from Orgeval, the artist in 1950 purchased the villa “Les Collines” in Vence.
The pale, veiled form communicating with Orpheus is his wife Eurydice, lost to the Underworld but still his Muse, just as Bella remained Chagall’s eternal beloved. Virginia realized that she was unable to supplant the artist’s memories of his dear, departed wife. The disparity in Chagall’s and Virginia’s ages, issues in their expectations regarding their love for each other—moreover, their different religious backgrounds—began to tell in their relationship. She took as her lover a photographer who was preparing a documentary about the artist. The divorce from her husband McNeil finally came through, awarding her custody of Jean. After seven years together, Chagall and Virginia parted ways, she taking the two children, in April 1952. Around the same time, through Ida, Chagall met Valentina Brodsky, a Jewish, Russian-born divorcée in her mid-forties, whom he married in July.