Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
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Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Le grand cirque

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Le grand cirque
signed 'Chagall' (lower right)
oil, tempera, gouache, watercolour, pen and India ink and pencil on squared paper
14¼ x 23¾ in. (36 x 60.8 cm.)
Executed in 1956
The artist's estate.
Ida Chagall, by descent from the above.
Anonymous sale, Christie's Tel Aviv, 10 April 1999, lot 41.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Special notice
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.

Lot Essay

This work is sold with a photo-certificate from the Comité Marc Chagall.

The circus was one of Chagall's favourite subjects during his early years in Paris and henceforth throughout his career. His experience and memory of clowns, acrobats and young ladies on horseback lay at the heart of his personal mythology. He joined a long and distinguished line of Post-Impressionist and Modern painters who featured the circus in their work, including Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, Van Dongen and Léger. In 1927, as Chagall was finishing his series of one hundred gouaches based on fables of La Fontaine, the dealer Ambroise Vollard, the sponsor of this project, suggested that the artist undertake a second group of pictures, based this time on the theme of the circus. Chagall painted nineteen gouaches, many of which were based on sketches that he made in Vollard's box at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris. The variety of characters and their performing roles in these works provided elements to which the artist later returned on many occasions.

The present gouache is a preliminary study for the large, panoramic oil painting Chagall Life and Work, New York, 1965, p.540). All of Chagall's favourite performers are here, together with an orchestra and audience. Chagall's circus pictures are usually filled with brilliant colour and exuberant activity, and stand out among his subjects as being especially joyous and life-affirming. Nevertheless, the artist's experience of the circus was tinged with introspection and melancholy, aspects which are apparent in reminiscences he wrote in 1967:

'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 colours 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....

I would like to go up to that bareback rider who has just disappeared, 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 J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, pp. 196-198)

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