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Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Chagall, M.
La ville s'endort
signed and dated 'Marc Chagall 945' (lower right)
gouache, pastel, pen, brush and black ink on paper
25 x 19 in. (64 x 50.2 cm.)
Painted in 1945
Perls Galleries, New York.
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Chagall, May-July 1967, p. 42, no. 241.

Lot Essay

The Comit Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this gouache.

Stricken with grief at the sudden death of his beloved wife Bella in September 1944, Chagall was unable to paint for almost nine months. When he took up his brush again in late spring 1945, he began by taking the large painting Les arlequins (F. Meyer, no. 402), which he had done in 1933, and cutting it in half. He repainted the left-hand side, which featured a portrait of Bella in the lower right corner, and retitled it Autour d'elle (F. Meyer, no. 460). The right-hand side was later reworked as Lumires de mariage (F. Meyer, no. 469). The former work features an acrobat in the upper left corner, having been carried over from the original composition's genesis as a circus scene.

In 1945 the New York City Ballet commissioned Chagall to design the curtain, sets and costumes for a new production of Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird. First performed in Paris in 1910, the ballet was based on an ancient Russian folk tale which had been reworked by the choreographer Michel Fokine and Ballets Russes impressario Serge Diaghilev. Replete with the all the elements of fairy tale, including the sinister Kastchei, captive princesses and the enchanted firebird, whose feather in the hand of the hero Ivan releases all from an evil magic spell, the story was tailor-made for Chagall's skills at transforming simple subjects and symbols into a fantastic and lyrical visual tapestry.

The powerful and intensely Russian narrative of The Firebird proved to be a major catalyst for a new phase in Chagall's work. He made numerous paintings and gouaches as he returned to a full routine of work. "In many of the smaller works of 1945 one senses the spirit that animates the designs for The Firebird" (F. Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Work, New York, 1963, p. 473). Chagall envisioned the character of the firebird as half-girl and half-bird; the central figure of the present gouache is half-girl and half-horse, an imaginative synthesis of a bareback rider and her mount.

The circus had been an important subject for Chagall since his Russian and early Paris years. In the late 1920s, as he was finishing his group of gouaches based on the fables of La Fontaine, Ambroise Vollard, who had sponsored the series, suggested that the artist undertake a second group on the circus theme. In the winter of 1926-1927 Chagall painted nineteen gouaches, some based on sketches that he made in Vollard's box at the Cirque d'Hiver. The variety of figures and poses in these works provided elements to which the artist would return again and again during the rest of his career.

The theme of the circus lies at the heart of Chagall's personal mythology. It conjured up many powerful memories for the artist, including recollections he wrote in 1967:
"Another time I saw another little girl. She looked to me like a bareback rider without a horse. In the nakedness of the courtyard her transparent body stocking glistened. I was struck dumb with fear, dreaming of her at night. These visions have transfixed me although the transparent girl, as well as the boy, evaporated long ago. Where can they be? Where will they end their days? Like them, I add up my age, year by year.

"These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces? With them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colors and make-up, I dream of painting new psychic distortions.

"I would like to go up to that bareback rider who has just reappeared, smiling; her dress, a bouquet of flowers. I would circle her with my flowered and unflowered years. On my knees, I would tell her wishes and dreams, not of this world.

"I would run after her horse to ask her how to live, how to escape from myself, from the world, whom to run to, where to go" (quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 197).

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