The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Vividly colored and rich with personal symbolism, Marc Chagall’s Autoportrait is an important work that dates from 1939-1940, one of the most turbulent moments of the artist’s life. Having become French nationals in 1937, at this time, Chagall and his wife Bella were living in the rural French countryside; first in St. Dyé sur Loire, before they moved in April 1940, to Gordes, a small village in Provence. Yet, the political situation in Europe was rapidly deteriorating; the same day that Chagall purchased a house in Gordes, the Germans invaded Belgium and Holland. By June, Paris had fallen. Chagall was hesitant to make any plans to flee Europe, refusing to concede the danger he faced by remaining in France, and instead immersing himself in his painting. It was not until Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee arrived in Gordes offering the artist and his wife assistance in moving to America that plans were set in motion for the artist’s departure. Ida, his daughter, collected Chagall’s art from Paris, and, in mid-June of 1941, Chagall and Bella set sail for New York, unsure of whether they would ever see Europe again.
Autoportrait was painted during this period of intense uncertainty. At this time, the theme of the self-portrait appears frequently in Chagall’s art, the result perhaps of the artist’s need to reaffirm his identity. Indeed, in his application for a French reentry visa, Chagall wrote, “Since 1910 I have chosen France, my adopted country, where I arrived very young to absorb the artistic culture of this country of art and painting. Since that date, my artistic career has unfolded entirely in France. I have always been very honored to be considered as a French painter” (Chagall, quoted in J. Wullschlager, Chagall: A Biography, New York, 2008, p. 389). In the present work, Chagall has presented himself in the quintessential pose of an artist: positioned in front of his easel, with his palette on his lap and his brushes conjoined to his hand. Flanked by a winged figure who sweeps through the scene carrying a verdant bouquet, the artist is surrounded by a halo of luminous yellow paint, set aglow by the light of creativity or artistic inspiration perhaps. However, while this pose calls to mind myriad examples of self-portraiture in the Western tradition, the rest of this scene is deeply personal. A rural landscape stretches behind the artist, the small, clustered cottages likely a memory of the artist’s beloved Vitebsk, the Russian village he was born and had grown up in. Rendered in vaporous clouds of white and gray paint, the landscape appears like a memory faded by time, its lack of color a sign perhaps of Chagall’s sadness that he was leaving his home and all he knew behind.
Yet most fascinating of all is the double-face with which Chagall has depicted himself. Franz Meyer has described this dual visage as signifying “the ambivalence of artistic creation, at once inner vision and outer realization, deliberate action and casual inactivity” (F. Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Work, New York, 1963, p. 435). This sense of personal confusion was likely also heightened by the anxiety that Chagall felt due to the prospect of leaving France. However, this dual portrait could also be seen to be an amalgamation of both Chagall and Bella. On the left, the artist’s blonde hair and distinctive features give way to the brunette curls and dark eyes of Bella. Similarly, while the artist is adorned in a rich red colored coat, the lapels are different: the right-hand side decorated with a filigree pattern that is more overtly feminine than the other side. As such, this fascinating self-portrait can be seen not only as the artist’s meditation on his identity both as an artist and a man in the face of impending war, but a poignant testament to the great love of his life, his wife, tragically without whom the artist would return to Europe following his years in exile.