The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this gouache.
The Vieux juif au violon is an elderly village fiddler or perhaps an itinerant musician, clad in a ragged coat, with one foot shod, the other pathetically shoeless, as he slowly makes his way, cane in hand, across the snowy landscape in a Russian winter, a season which is all too emblematic of the hard times in which he has found himself. In better days the life and fortunes of this fiddler would have been bound up in the daily life and rituals of a small but flourishing Jewish rural community. He represented the sole expression of art that many poor shtetl folk would ever experience, as he presided over get-togethers of all kinds, celebrating births, birthdays and other anniversaries, bar mitzvahs and weddings. That was then--today the village lies dormant under a pall of snow and a turbulently inauspicious sky.
Franz Meyer has observed that in Chagall's work of the 1930s, "new themes and motifs appear, expressing the gravity of Chagall's mood at the time, his deeper interest in Jewish affairs, and the preoccupation with religion revealed in the Bible etchings" (Marc Chagall, New York, 1963, p. 409). The inspiration for the present gouache may have come from a trip that Chagall and his wife Bella took in August-September 1935 to Vilna, where the artist dedicated the new Museum of Jewish Art, for which he first made plans in 1929, at the Yiddish Scientific Institute. He exhibited over a hundred engravings that he had created for Gogol's Dead Souls, La Fontaine's Fables, the Bible and his own My Life.
Vilna was then situated within Poland's borders; half of its population, amounting to around 100,000 people, was Jewish, and the city was the center of Yiddish cultural life in the Pale. "The wooden houses and winding streets of the Jewish quarter, and the prevalence of Yiddish and of Jews... In traditional garb, of Jewish food at the marketplace," Jackie Wullschlager has written, "all had an almost hypnotic effect on Chagall and Bella, as if they were walking in Vitebsk, their native town" (Chagall, A Biography, New York, 2008, p. 363). Vitebsk lay just beyond the border in the Soviet Union, but was off-limits to Chagall, who had defected to the West in 1922. The artist wrote to his friend Yosef Opatoshu in New York, "To get up to the border of my city and tell her that she does not love me, but I love her... and shall return without entering her..." (quoted in B. Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall and his Times, Stanford, 2004, p. 445).
The trip to Vilna had been for Chagall and Bella a nostalgia journey. The artist began to write once again in Yiddish and Bella now considered a project for writing her own memoir of Vitebsk, also in Yiddish, which she eventually published as Burning Lights. But their trip had also shown them reasons for viewing the future with apprehension. They learned that the son of an eminent Jewish historian at the Institute had been mocked in the street and beaten by Poles, evidence that since the recent death of Marshal Pilsudksi, the great statesman of the Polish second republic, anti-Semitism was again on the rise in that country. While Chagall was in Vilna, The Nazi government in Germany laid down the Nuremburg Laws, which disenfranchised Jews and made them non-citizens. Prior to his trip, Chagall had written to Opatoshu, "I work and sigh like all Jews in the world, who are being beaten... and because of that I become even more a Jew" (quoted in ibid., p. 449). Chagall sees in the lone, elderly down-and-out fiddler a portent of things to come--stories which will be given voice in the melodies played on the old violin. "The world's grief is present under the signs of a grave and melancholy contemplation," Raissa Maritain wrote of Chagall, "but the symbols of consolation dwell always with it. If there is a poor man in the snow, at least he plays a violin" (quoted in S. Alexander, Marc Chagall: A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 307).