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

La neige

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
La neige
signed and dated 'Marc Chagall 1951-53' (lower right); signed again 'Marc Chagall' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
42 x 40 3/8 in. (106.8 x 102.5 cm.)
Painted in 1951-1953
Galerie Maeght, Paris (no. 1937).
Private collection, Paris, by 1964.
Pentimento Gallery, Malibu, from whom acquired through J. Hamilton Buck, Inc., New York, by the present owner in October 2000.
J. Lassaigne, Marc Chagall, Paris, 1957, p. 144 (illustrated).
F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, London, 1964, pp. 502 and 759, no. 839 (illustrated).
Hannover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Marc Chagall, May - June 1955, no. 39.
Paris, Daniel Malingue, Mâitres Impressionnistes et Modernes, November - December 1984, no. 12 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

The Comité Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.

Painted in 1951-53, La neige is one of a small group of works dating from just after Chagall's move to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the South of France. In his authoritative monograph on the artist, Franz Meyer discussed this painting and referred to it in conjunction with a group of pictures that were begun by the artist some time before 1953, but then revisited and completed then. La neige is distinctive in its palette for the way in which it seems to recall Chagall's earlier works, adding an extra dimension to the sense of nostalgia with which his paintings are so often suffused.

In terms of nostalgia, of memory, this scene is clearly not Vence, but instead recalls the Belarusian towns of his childhood. Is this Vitebsk, Chagall's home when he was growing up? Or is it indeed the village where he used to visit his grandfather? Certainly there is a rustic feel both to some of the buildings and to the mysterious red goat which floats, reading, vibrant against the more subdued palette of the rest of the canvas. Indeed, this goat provides the largest area of colour, its bold red recalling, against the backdrop of the winter's night, Blake's Tyger. It is a mystical creature, as is only suited to this mystical scene. The picture is peopled with various characters, all engaged in some narrative that the viewer can but guess at, possibly recalling memories from the artist's own past or dreamed, chance fragments, possibly reflecting other stories. The apparent bewilderment and attempt to bring about order of the man holding a candelabra paradoxically reinforces the fairytale-like character of the painting-- he seems to understand what is happening as little as the viewer, and yet is as deeply involved.

Chagall's paintings are a whimsical combination of dream, memory and imagination. In La neige, there is a sense of the impossible and the illogical that is wholly tied to the world of dreams, as exemplified by the strange colours of the animals, the faint and ghostly couple who are barely solid, instead depicted in subdued outlines, and the vast outstretched nude who dominates the canvas. Her skin appears almost to be a continuation of the snow, which itself may owe its existence, as Chagall's theme, to the prompt of the canvas before he began painting. This similarity between the snow and her flesh implies that she may be some personification of the winter downfall, of the cosiness of a winter's night. This idea is reinforced by her meandering downward flow across the canvas, across which she stretches facing head-first, and the way in which her flesh and the snowy background almost melt together, separated not by appearance but only by the shaded outline of her body. This is a glimpse into a pantheon that is Chagall's own, and yet its magical quality and its open, honest charm are enchanting, inviting the viewer to share in this nostalgic dream.

In My Life, the artist's 1922 memoirs, Chagall tells a story about an episode with his beloved first love and first wife, Bella, while they were in Vitebsk that appears possibly to relate to the scene in La neige. Bella and Chagall are alone:

'It's dark.
I kiss her.
A still life magically takes shape in my mind.
She poses for me.
Reclining, a rounded white nude takes shape.
I approach her timidly. I confess it was the first time I had seen a nude.
Although she was practically my fiancée I was still afraid of approaching her, of going any nearer, of touching all that loveliness. As if a feast were spread before your eyes' (M. Chagall, My Life, London, 1965, p. 79).

Perhaps the memories of that first glimpse of a naked woman are emerging in La neige, in the form of the romanticised, bouquet-holding nude that takes up so much of the canvas. Viewed from this strange angle, her supine elegance is all the more mysterious, perhaps recalling the strangeness of Chagall's own first view of her naked form. And maybe they are also, then, the spectral couple shown kissing, like some associated wisp of memory, another shard of the past brought back to life in the form of this dreamlike painting. For is that not a palette near his hand? Are we seeing Marc revisiting Bella in the Vitebsk of his memories?

Long after her sudden death in 1944, Bella continued to feature in Chagall's pictures, even after his marriage in 1952, within the dates of execution of La neige, to Valentina Brodsky. Indeed wherever the theme of romance introduces itself from the date of Bella's death onwards, it does so with an element of the bittersweet-Chagall's paintings reflect his desire to be reunited with his first wife at his own death, and this adds an ethereal quality to paintings such as this. It was not romance alone, though, but rather love that was the enduring theme of Chagall's pictures. For it was through depictions of love and its associated joy that Chagall hoped to spread an instinctive and emotional message, a call to the soul. As an artist, he was generously trying to spread joy and fellowship, inviting his viewers to join him in the oneiric revels of his twilit world of the imagination. Following the two World Wars and his experiences in revolutionary Russia, Chagall was well-qualified to show an interest in the peace that love, and it was this that came to motivate many of his paintings, especially from the 1940s onwards:

'I thought that only love and uncalculating devotion towards others will lead to the greatest harmony in life and in art of which humanity has been dreaming so long. And this must, of course, be included in each utterance, in each brushstroke, and in each colour' (Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, Chagall: A Retrospective, Westport, 1995, p. 208).


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