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

L'écuyère, or Danseuse au cirque

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
L'écuyère, or Danseuse au cirque
signed and dated 'Marc Chagall 29' (lower left)
oil on canvas
22 1/8 x 28 1/8 in. (56.2 x 71.4 cm.)
Painted in 1929
Private collection, Switzerland, by 1933.
Private collection, Switzerland, by whom acquired from the above in 1960; sale, Sotheby's, New York, 7 May 2008, lot 22.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Marc Chagall, May - July 1967; this exhibition later travelled to Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, September - October 1967.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

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Lot Essay

The Comité Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
'For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world' (Marc Chagall, 'The Circus', in J. Baal-Teshuva (ed.), Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 196).

If there is one subject that is emblematic of Marc Chagall's oeuvre, it is surely the circus. Through its topsy-turvy world, Chagall could explore many of his favourite themes - fantasy, romance, happiness and transience. Danseuses au cirque is a dazzling canvas of delicate lines and veils of diaphanous colour that is infused with all the magic and pageantry that this spectacle offered. Chagall painted it in 1929 when he was living in France, making it an early example of a subject that would come to preoccupy him throughout his long and productive career. The iridescent colour of this painting exemplifies the more-highly keyed tonalities that Chagall was exploring during this period. Shining sapphires and turquoises and bursts of pink, green and yellow all combine to add to the picture's mood of dream-like other-worldliness.

In 1926, when Chagall was completing a series of illustrations for La Fontaine's Fables, the dealer Ambroise Vollard suggested that he create a cycle of circus subjects intended to form a suite of etchings. For this project Chagall executed nineteen preliminary gouaches collectively known as the Cirque Vollard, some of which were based upon sketches that he made from Vollard's own box at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris. These gouaches, in turn, gave rise to a small group of oils painted in the late 1920s and early 1930s of which Danseuse au cirque is one the finest and most sparkling examples.

Chagall had long had a fascination for the circus and its colourful performers. This stemmed from his childhood in Vitebsk in White Russia where acrobats and equestrian acts frequently entertained crowds at the many village fairs. These itinerant performers made a lasting impression upon him and in autobiographical vignettes composed in the late 1960s he asked himself the question of just why this was so: 'These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and grimaces? With them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colours and make-up, I dream of painting new psychic distortions' (Chagall, 'The Circus', in Baal-Teshuva, op. cit., p. 197).

Danseuese au cirque perfectly encapsulates these dream-like visions and 'psychic distortions' where the decorative curtain is drawn back to reveal a shimmering, brightly coloured spectacle of fragmentary motifs. Here, the bare-breasted titular danseuse or equestrienne astride a horse is accompanied by a diminutive dancing harlequin below and, above, the figure of floating woman who reaches out to grasp a crescent moon. That the dancer's eyes are closed enhances the oneiric atmosphere permeating the canvas, suggesting that it is she who is conjuring this dream-like vision. There is hint of nostalgia, too, with the inclusion of the small buildings in the background that may represent Chagall's childhood home of Vitebsk. Whilst the decade of the 1920s represented 'the happiest time' in Chagall's life and was a period which saw him lauded as a leading artist in the École de Paris, towards its close he was also desperately seeking to reconnect with those he had left behind in Russia (Chagall, quoted in J. Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, London, 2008, p. 33). It is this intermingling of joy and melancholy, the happy and the sad, that coloured Chagall's attitude towards life. He recognized all this as reflected in the figure of the circus performer and the inclusion of the small figure of the saltimbanque in the present work may well be a symbolic self-portrait. The circus itself he saw as: 'a timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of a great art' (Chagall, 'The Circus', in Baal-Teshuva, op. cit.).

Chagall's belief that the circus was 'great art' is reflected in the manner in which he approached the painting of it. His was not, as one might expect with a portrayal of a circus, a wholly whimsical approach, but rather he sought to generate a genuinely emotional response in the viewer. He explained, 'I did not want to spare any of the more moving, tender feelings in a picture of a clown or a circus rider, feelings which one would experience in painting a madonna, a Christ, a rabbi with the Torah, or a pair of lovers' (Chagall, quoted in W. Erben, Marc Chagall, New York, 1957, p. 93). In Danseuse au cirque this emotion is movingly conveyed in the dancer's affectionate embrace of the horse. Chagall had explored the unity of animal and human life in the Fables but it was the horse that appealed to him most, an animal he believed was 'always in a state of ecstasy' (Chagall, 'The Circus', in Baal-Teshuva, op. cit.).

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