For Marc Chagall, painting had always been a medium through which to express the internal world of his imagination, recording his memories, passions and emotions on canvas in a fantastical, anti-rational manner. Painted circa 1968-1972, La mariée de Notre-Dame continues this tradition, boldly conjuring a scene in which an ethereal bride soars above the cathedral of Notre-Dame, its iconic western façade glowing a bright orange beside the cool, blue waters of the Seine. A great flourish of flowers fills the entire upper area of the canvas, its forms enriched with the pure, dazzling colours of Chagall’s mature oeuvre, while the familiar image of a cockerel outlined in the greenery approaches the bride, its gaze trained on her willowy body. Captured in a great flurry of energetic brushstrokes, the composition illustrates the importance of memory in Chagall’s thoughts at this stage of his career, as he portrays an entrancing vision of a world of ecstatic dream and romance, inspired by elements of his own journey through life.
I owe all that I have done well to Paris, to France, whose air, whose men and whose nature has been the true school of my life and my art”
Paris had been a revelation to Chagall when he first arrived in the city as a young student in 1910, the hectic pace, striking colours and bright lights of the bustling metropolis leaving him awestruck after his sheltered upbringing in Vitebsk. Following his move to the French capital with his wife Bella and young daughter, Ida, in 1923, his perception of the city shifted – after almost a decade of hardship, Paris heralded an end to a prolonged period of upheaval and uncertainty, which had seen the young couple move more than a dozen times since the start of their marriage, living in a series of run-down communal flats and tiny damp rooms. As such, Paris represented a safe haven for the family, offering them a home and a sense of comfort after years of struggle. Describing the city in a letter to Bella shortly before her arrival from Berlin, Chagall wrote ‘it is a world of richness, luxury, art, the play of life’ (quoted in J. Wullschlager, Chagall: Love & Exile, London, 2008, p. 324). Speaking to his son-in-law, the art historian Franz Meyer, in the 1960s, the artist revealed that the time the family spent in the city during the 1920s and 1930s had been amongst the happiest years of his life, filled with opportunity and promise, love, laughter and joy.
This golden period would be cruelly cut short, first by the onset of war, which forced the artist to relocate to New York for the duration of the conflict, and secondly by the untimely death of Bella in 1944, following a short illness. Chagall returned to Paris briefly in 1946 following the end of the conflict, making a series of small sketches of the city in gouache and chalk during the visit, and again found in the bustling cityscape, resurgent and full of new life, pleasingly familiar inspiration for his work. As he later remembered, this return had a powerful impact on his imagination: ‘the Paris of which I dreamed in America and which I rediscovered enriched by new life, as if I had to be born again, dry my tears and start crying again. Absence, war, suffering were needed for all that to awaken in me and become the frame for my thoughts and my life’ (quoted in F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, London, 1964, p. 529). These sketches – which included views of the Champs Elysées, the Panthéon and the Bastille – would inspire a series of paintings depicting the city’s famous landmarks during the 1950s, as Paris increasingly replaced Vitebsk in the artist’s imagination as his primary, symbolic home.
Poets always use the same letters, but out of them they constantly recreate different words”
Discussing this shift in Chagall’s depictions of the city, Jean Cassou has written: ‘Chagall’s whole heart and his mind were involved in this theme. He projected his passionate love of Vitebsk on to Paris. He was fully aware of doing so, for he knew that he needed to be possessed by this kind of love for a place; this sanctification... was necessary to him, he needed his holy city. From now on it was to be Paris… And the monuments of Paris are themselves motifs in the life of Chagall, just as much as the donkey, the cock and the lovers’ (J. Cassou, Chagall, London, 1965, pp. 220-225). Returning to this theme again in the 1970s, paintings such as La mariée de Notre-Dame appear to hark back to the blissful, halcyon days of the 1920s, when the artist was united with his great love, Bella, in the city. Here, the artist uses the western façade of the famous cathedral to firmly root his painting in a Parisian context, revealing the manner in which these monuments were intrinsically linked to his personal vision of the city, each one a symbol of the capital’s unique blend of dynamism and history, as well as his own experiences in the city of lights. Chagall generates a strange surreality within the composition through the combination of the familiar, recognisable setting of Paris with the dreamlike superimposition of the bride and the flowers, as the radiant young bride hovers weightlessly off the ground, standing out pale and ethereal – a heavenly body, her expression beatific and rapt – against the brilliantly coloured bouquet, with its incandescent bursts of yellow, pink, and mauve.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).