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Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Property from a New York Collector
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Les Paysans

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Les Paysans
signed 'Marc Chagall' (lower right); signed again 'Marc Chagall' (on the reverse)
oil and tempera on canvas
45 ½ x 31 ¾ in. (115.8 x 80.7 cm.)
Painted in 1971
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, March 1973.

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Lot Essay

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

The wondrous vitality of Chagall's imagination, as youthfully whimsical and impetuous as ever, empowered him in his late paintings to become—like Picasso, notwithstanding the strong differences in their backgrounds and temperament—the impresario, auteur, director and a leading player in a lively theater of memory. Just as Picasso drew heavily on his ancestral Mediterranean roots, so Chagall became the artificer of a pictorial realm based on multiple personal mythologies he had evolved for himself as the proverbial Wandering Jew. He assembled during his migrations and occasional travels a diverse iconography that evoked his early years in Russia, his love of Paris and the French countryside, a wartime transatlantic exile in America, and then again France, where finally he made his home by the Mediterranean, not far from Picasso.
Painted in 1971, Les Paysans is a rich and sumptuously worked canvas brimming with many of Chagall's most favored and iconic motifs. At the center of this densely filled composition, a peasant couple stands tall, surrounded by animals, houses, trees, and other figures. Here, the panoply of imagery drawn from Chagall's personal symbolic lexicon is masterfully—and characteristically—combined with folkloric iconography.
The motifs that populate this dream-like world contain a wealth of visual references and meanings. Rural life is reflected in the many rustic dwellings, which bear a striking resemblance to those of Chagall’s native Vitebsk, now in Belarus but in Chagall's childhood part of the Russian Empire. “The fact that I made use of cows, milkmaids, roosters and provincial Russian architecture as my source forms is because they are part of the environment from which I spring and which undoubtedly left the deepest impression on my visual memory of the experiences I have,” Chagall explained (quoted in B. Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall on Art and Culture, Stanford, 2003, p. 83). Tellingly, in this fantasy village, the central male figure gazes down at the village, possibly echoing a deep-seated longing in Chagall for his home. His head is bowed down towards the female figure, who, we presume, is his lover.
Contrary to the majority of Chagall’s paintings depicting lovers, the present work does not show the young couple embracing, as with the couple in the lower left of the painting. The male leans forward towards the female, and, although the two figures do not meet each other’s eyes, it is as if they are timidly trying to hand one another the flower bouquets. They are, perhaps, in the early stages of their courtship, experiencing a shy romance which has yet to develop and bloom into a mature love.
The theme of the young lovers is the most frequent subject in Chagall's paintings, but there are many variants on this theme. As befitting the mysteries of human love, and so characteristic of Chagall's work generally, there is rarely a straight-forward or clearly logical narrative behind these paintings. Time has been compressed, and events seem to take place in the haze of memories or dreams. Susan Compton writes: "It was a vision of 'real' love, that love which the artist was to share with his wife Bella...this celebration by the lovers is equally fantastic, for their joy has levitated them from the ground. Their faces are real enough, but now their position is imaginary. Yet by this device Chagall has conveyed the magic carpet of human love, borrowed perhaps from the world of folk tale, where the hero and heroine live happily ever after" (Chagall, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 1985, pp. 15-16).

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