The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
This scene recalls the 19th-century English circus song, genders reversed: “She'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease / A daring young woman on the flying trapeze. / Her movements were graceful, all the boys she could please / And my heart she purloined away.” The acrobat in Marc Chagall’s gouache is his perennially youthful wife and muse Bella, seated on the slender bar of the trapeze, surely the most perilous of all aerialist acts—in fact, she has lost a shoe, fallen to the floor of the ring far below. The artist is both the man behind the mask of the rooster violinist serenading the troupe’s star attraction, as well as the clown at lower right, regaling her—in recognition of her exquisite skill and fearless aplomb—with a wreath of laurel.
In a final flourish of joie de vivre during 1937-1938, on the eve of the looming catastrophe in Europe, Chagall painted L’Acrobate among a small series of circus pictures, in which he returned to this theme on the anniversary of the nineteen gouaches he had created ten years before, the Cirque Vollard (Meyer, nos. 418-456). For both circus sequences, the dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard offered Chagall free use of his season box at the Cirque d’Hiver, of which the artist happily availed himself, “because the circus was a lovely place to take his daughter,” Sidney Alexander has written. “Marc was as childishly delighted with it as Ida” (Chagall: A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 292).
Itinerant saltimbanques and the performers at the old Cirque Médrano had provided young Pablo Picasso, during his 1904-1906 Rose Period, a fitting allegory for overcoming bohemian poverty and despair by achieving mastery in his art. Le grand chapiteau of the Cirque d’Hiver likewise inspired Chagall to draw upon circus performance as a vivid metaphor for the life he had decided to lead. He thereby joined a long line of distinguished painters working in France who featured the circus in their art, stemming from Watteau—a favorite of Chagall—and thereafter including Daumier, Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and—among his immediate contemporaries, together with Picasso—Rouault, Dufy, Van Dongen, and Léger. The vision and dream of the circus became the very heart of Chagall’s personal mythology.
“For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world,” Chagall wrote. “These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have themselves a home in my visions. With them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colors and make-up, I can dream of painting new psychic distortions. It is a magic word, circus, a timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of a great art” (“The Circus” in Marc Chagall, Le Cirque: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1981).
The first private owner of L’Acrobate was the Hollywood film producer, dance director, and talent agent Harold Hecht (1907-1985), whose movie Marty won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1956.