The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
The present gouache bears witness to an extraordinary chapter in Chagall’s life–a saga that spans three countries, two decades, a world war, and a revolution. Painted in 1923-1924, the work is a new version of a major composition that Chagall initially created in oil twelve years before, during his transformative first stay in Paris (Christie’s New York, 14 November 1990, Lot 18). Within a faceted, cubist-inspired space transformed through vehement color contrasts, Chagall presents a scene of stressed oppositions and unsettling incongruities: a well-dressed man seated at a rustic table, a sharp knife poised in his lap, his head hovering ghost-like above a floating bottle. “It was my color,” Chagall explained, “that demanded the cut-off head” (quoted in F. Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Work, New York, 1964, p. 138).
The earlier Buveur was one of three ambitious canvases that Chagall exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, his inaugural foray into that modernist showplace. The painting then traveled to Berlin in May 1914 for Chagall’s first solo show, which Herwarth Walden, impresario of the German avant-garde, organized at his gallery Der Sturm. Featuring forty oils and 160 works on paper, this was the most important exhibition of Chagall’s life–the foundation of his worldwide fame. Chagall journeyed to Berlin for the opening and then on to Russia, planning to stay just long enough to see his fiancé Bella and attend his sister’s wedding. The First World War and the Russian Revolution intervened, however, disrupting these plans.
When Chagall finally made it back to Berlin eight years later, he discovered that Walden–not sure whether the artist was even alive–had sold almost all the paintings from the 1914 show. The dealer refused to disclose the identity of the buyers and offered Chagall a pittance in settlement. Chagall sued, hoping to force the return of his pictures, but after lengthy proceedings was able to recover only three oils. To make matters worse, when he returned to Paris in autumn 1923, he found that his old studio had been looted and not a single painting remained. It was as if his artistic past had vanished.
Profoundly affected by this loss, Chagall set himself the monumental task of re-creating his old work. By early 1924, he had a proper studio at 101, avenue d’Orléans, and he began to paint replicas and variants of his pre-war canvases, symbolically reclaiming his property–and his artistic identity. Chagall created these new versions in both gouache and oil, working from reproductions when available and otherwise from memory. The present Buveur is very close in detail to the 1911-1912 composition, and it is likely that the artist had a photograph of the older painting that Walden had published in 1923 in the first volume of Sturm-Bildebücher, devoted–with some gall–entirely to Chagall.
“The oeuvre of half a lifetime lay behind him, already famous and admired; but he had access to only a small fraction of it,” Franz Meyer has explained. “To make a new start he needed his old works, the imagery he had invented. It was to equip himself with what he felt his ‘own’ that he now painted the old pictures a second time” (ibid., p. 324).