Executed in 1967, Le bonheur du jeune couple aux fleurs is a vibrant example of the nostalgic imagery Marc Chagall was drawn to in the twilight years of his prolific career. Bathed in a deep blue which evokes a nocturnal, dream-like quality, this exquisite gouache poetically brings together emblematic elements from the artist’s deeply personal iconography – the tender lovers, the resplendent bouquet, the twinkling townscape in the background. These motifs travel across his rich oeuvre, alongside a fantastic range of symbolic and whimsical imagery, which helps bring his unique body of work to life.
Chagall had first introduced floral still-lifes in his painting in the mid-1920s. Having returned to France form his native Russia in 1923, the artist developed a new appreciation for nature and was particularly enchanted by flowers, associating them with the fertile French landscape which became his home in the years between the wars. From this point onwards, bouquets were were given greater prominence within the artist’s work, allowing the artist to hone his mastery of colour and light through luminous compositions in which bounteous flowers take centre stage. More than a reference to nature, florals also served as a compelling symbol of romantic love in Chagall’s work: a visual embodiment of the joyous and blissful romance he felt for the great loves of his life. In the present work, the robust bouquet bursts forth in a flurry of spirited strokes of rosy pinks, golden yellows, and warm greens which bring an uninhibited energy to the composition.
The enigmatic woman suspended upside-down in the foreground of the composition can be interpreted as an amalgamation of the women Chagall loved throughout his life. The artist often portrayed his first wife and greatest love, Bella Rosenfeld, alongside a profusion of flowers, conveying his affection for her in plentiful blossoms. Chagall had met Bella as a young man in his hometown of Vitebsk and claimed to have fallen in love with her at first sight. Recalling the fierce emotions he experienced during their initial encounter, the artist wrote: ‘Her silence is mine. Her eyes mine. I feel she has known me always, my childhood, my present life, my future; as if she were watching over me, divining my innermost being…I knew this is she, my wife...’ (Chagall, My Life, London, 2013, p. 77). The two were wed in 1915, the same year Chagall painted Bella in Birthday, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and they enjoyed a happy and loving marriage. The couple spent their wartime exile in New York, where a sudden illness claimed Bella’s life in September 1944. Her death had a profound impact on Chagall, whose canvases would be visited by a veiled, eternally youthful Bella for the rest of his life.
Virginia Haggard Neil, 28 years Chagall’s junior and miserable in her marriage, entered the grieving artist’s life as his housekeeper nine months after Bella’s death. An unexpected love blossomed between them, and for the next few years Chagall’s compositions would host his swan-necked, red-haired young paramour as she floated alongside saturated bouquets, as seen in La belle rousse ou Les cheveux rouges. Despite the birth of a son, the relationship soon floundered as the disparity in their ages and religious backgrounds took its toll. In 1952, after seven years together, the two parted ways. Around the same time, through Ida, Chagall’s now-grown daughter with Bella, the artist met Valentina Brodsky, a Jewish, Russian-born divorcée in her mid-forties whom he married in July of that year. Affectionately nicknamed Vava, she provided a stable presence for the artist, as well an opportunity to wade into the nostalgic waters of his home and youth.
Throughout the rest of his life, Chagall merged the images of these three women in his art. In his imagination, their consolidation formed a perfect representation of the spiritual and sensual aspects of love – an ideal union of passion and companionship. In this way, the man in the hat can be seen as Chagall himself, perennially young, floating with his great loves against the backdrop of a rustic village cast in blue shadows. At the time the present work was executed, the artist and Vava had settled in the medieval French hill-top town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. The rural rooftops here, however, appear as though conjured from the artist’s memory, unchanged from how they must have appeared in 1909 when he first met his wife-to-be in the Jewish quarters of the Belarussian town in which he was raised. His homeland and former identity continued to provide fruitful artistic inspiration for the rest of Chagall’s life, emerging in dream-like scenes in which myth and memory intertwined. Remarkably, unlike the lovers who often float over his compositions, here Chagall depicted the lovers not embracing, but rather conjoined together to form one mystical being. The artist has visualized the fusion of the bittersweet memories of his past, with his contentedness in the present.