Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Property from an Important Collection
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Nature morte sur les toits

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Nature morte sur les toits
signed 'Marc Chagall' (lower center)
oil on canvas
18 1/8 x 21 5/8 in. (45.8 x 55 cm.)
Painted circa 1923
Burthoul Collection, Belgium; sale, Galerie Georges Giroux, Brussels, 11 March 1950, lot 23.
Daniel Bortin, Philadelphia.
Ambassador and Mrs. Arnold Salzman, Great Neck, New York.
Anon. sale, Sotheby & Co., London, 3 July 1968, lot 74.
Galerie de l'Elysée (Alex Maguy), Paris.
René Lang, Zürich (by March 1969).
Galleria del Milione, Milan (possibly acquired from the above, circa January 1983).
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1983.
Letter from M. Chagall to R. Lang, 31 March 1969.
Letter from V. Chagall to C. Ghringhelli (Galleria del Milione), 28 January 1983.
Letter from I. Chagall to C. Ghringhelli (Galleria del Milione), 1 March, 1983.
"Front Matter" in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 110, no. 783, June 1968, p. xxvii (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Katia Granoff, 1935.
(possibly) Brussels, Galerie Georges Giroux, L’art vivant dans les collections privées belges, June-June 1947, no. 12bis.
New York, Beilin Gallery, Marc Chagall: Eightieth Birthday Exhibition, An American Tribute, April-May 1967, no. 8 (illustrated; titled Horses Head with Flowers and dated 1925).
(possibly) Kunsthaus Zürich, Vereinigung Zürcher Kunstfreunde: Mitglieder zeigen ihr Lieblingskunstwerk aus eigenem Besitz, October-November 1968, p. 35, no. 73.
Turin, Galleria civica d'arte moderna e contemporanea, Marc Chagall: un maestro del '900, March-July 2004, p. 92, no. 47 (illustrated in color, p. 93; titled Nudo sotto il tavolo and dated 1927-1928).

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Lot Essay

The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

Painted circa 1923 in Paris, Nature morte sur les toits marries Chagall's most seminal artistic motifs, fantasy and the still-life. With vibrant colors and thick impasto, this painting is a mirage of magical lyricism and dreamlike fantasy. Suffused with bold hues and harmonious, rich light, Chagall’s works from this period have a soothing, gentle atmosphere. In Nature morte sur les toits, Chagall has not only depicted an alluring spectacle, but also one that is personal, filled with magical musings of the artist’s inner psyche.
In 1922, about a year before Nature morte sur les toits was painted, Marc Chagall left his native Russia forever in pursuit of a more stable life for himself, wife Bella and his seven-year-old daughter, Ida. After almost a decade of hardship, Chagall and his family settled in the French capital in 1923, leaving behind them the uncertainty of the previous years, which had seen them move more than a dozen times since the start of his and Bella’s marriage. Living in a series of run-down communal flats and tiny damp rooms, the trio had been forced to repeatedly relocate from city to city. Paris heralded an end to this upheaval, and soon became a safe haven for the family. They also entered a new period of financial security at this time, as Chagall’s commercial success gradually increased. Speaking to his son-in-law, art historian Franz Meyer, in the 1960s, Chagall revealed that the time the family spent in Paris in the 1920s were among the happiest years of his life. As Susan Compton noted, "Chagall was determined to return to Paris, the artistic capital of Europe, where he had already spent four years from 1910 to 1914" (Marc Chagall: My Life—My Dream: Berlin and Paris, 1922-1940, Munich, 1990, pp. 15-16).
Despite his notoriety as a leading artist in the École de Paris during the 1920s, Chagall was also desperately seeking to reconnect with those he had left behind in Russia, manifesting a nostalgic tone in his work. Subtle imagery repeats itself from canvas to canvas, such as the red cottage roofs dotting the skyline of the artist’s dreamscapes, harkening back to the Chagall’s childhood home of Vitebsk. Having deemed France’s capital as his “second Vitebsk,” Chagall confessed “I was nostalgic for Paris. I understood that my art couldn’t develop anywhere but in France” (quoted in B. Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, Stanford, 2004, p. 323).
Dynamically painted and dominating the composition, the vase of flowers vibrates with life, asserting itself almost as a portrait, rather than a still life. The thick application of the raw pigment, with Van Gogh-like intensity, in the floral arrangement adds a rudimentary effect to the otherwise sophisticated subject. The Greek-born writer Tériade once commented on Chagall exuberant use of the floral motif: "As for Chagall he is a painter who was born a romantic... To see the world through bouquets! Huge, monstrous bouquets in ringing profusion, haunting brilliance. Were we to see him only through these abundances gathered at random from gardens... and naturally balanced, we could wish for no more precious joy!" (quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 136). As is clearly demonstrated in Nature morte sur les toits, Chagall managed to inject new life and energy into the ancient tradition of the flower painting. He lent it new depth through his own intimate link to his subject matter. While there is an atmosphere of impermanence in the celestial blue and, perhaps, a hint of absence in the stillness of the moment, Nature morte sur les toits nonetheless remains primarily a colorist celebration.
It was the dream-like quality in Chagall's works that had initially led to the Surrealists approaching the artist and asking him to join their number. It was this same sense of whimsy that led to Ambroise Vollard commissioning two groups of works from Chagall during the period that Nature Morte sur les toits was painted. The first of these were gouaches that he prepared as illustrations for La Fontaine's Fables in 1926, while the following year he executed a large group of works focusing on the theme of the circus. As Nature morte sur les toits predates these commissions, the peculiar storybook inspired characters present themselves in this present work.
A capricious horse head leers from the right side of the composition joining the surreal dreamscape. The blue surface, upon which the still life is perched, doubles as a cottage roof, re-locating the scene and its inhabitants into a floating, otherworldly space. The multilayered surface texture and brilliance of color supersede the need for explanation of the nonsensical eccentricities in this painting. As Chagall once stated in an interview for L’Art vivant, “All painters seemed to me to be too ‘realistic,’ if I dare use that term. Unlike them, what has always tempted me most is the invisible aspect, the so-called illogical side of form and spirit, without which the exterior truth isn’t complete for me. Which doesn’t mean that I am appealing to the fantastic. Consciously, voluntarily fantastic art is absolutely alien to me. From this point of view, I have nothing in common with such painters...their fantastic is imagined, desired, symbolic, often literary, but it isn’t ‘real.’” (B. Harshav, op. cit., 2004, p. 324). Chagall creates the pathway for the viewer from reality to his illogical and fantastical reveries in Nature morte sur les toits.

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