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Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
signed 'Marc Chagall' (lower right)
oil on canvas
28 7/8 x 23¾ in. (73.2 x 60.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1928-1929
Private collection, New York (acquired from the artist, circa 1920).
By descent from the above to the present owner.
F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, Life and Work, New York, 1963, pp. 333 and 752, no. 364 (illustrated).
A. Z. Rudenstine, The Guggenheim Museum Collection, Paintings 1880-1945, New York, 1976, vol. I, p. 77.
Kulturgesellschaft Frankfurt, Marc Chagall, The Russian Years 1906-1922, June-September 1991, p. 396, no. 165 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.

The green-faced Violoniste is among the best-known and most widely reproduced of Chagall's quintessential images. This musician, so intently absorbed in his playing, quickly brings to mind the classic and often revived 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, and the 1971 Oscar-winning film based on it (see note to lot 11). The fiddler would probably not have been so memorable if his countenance were any other color. Chagall's choice is just right; green is surely the best color of all. "The Green Man" is a universal mythical type, the embodiment of ancient vegetation myths found in many cultures around the world. In the Anglo-Celtic world he exists in the medieval legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a Green Man Festival is held annually in Wales. Chagall claimed that he made him green for purely "'psychic and plastic reasons' and said that green is an arbitrary poetic color" (quoted in V.E. Barnett, Handbook: The Guggenheim Museum Collection, New York, 1980, p. 201). A green visage may indeed be the perfect chromatic counterpoint to the crimson violet of the musician's coat, but one suspects that the artist knew he had tapped into something far deeper.

By the time Chagall returned to Paris in September 1923 he had already painted two versions of the green violinist. He painted the original composition a decade earlier, in 1912-1913 (fig. 1), during his first sojourn in Paris. Chagall dispatched it with other paintings to an exhibition in Amsterdam on the eve of the First World War, where it remained after he went back to Russia. It was sold during the war (although the artist never received the proceeds) and finally entered the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. Chagall painted the second version in 1919-1920 (fig. 2), while he was in Russia. He used the green fiddler to represent "Music" in a series of four vertical panels on the arts which he executed for the State Jewish Kamerny Theater in Moscow. These murals are now kept in the State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow; they were last seen in New York in 2001 as a highlight of the exhibition Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections at the Jewish Museum.

Chagall found himself in an unusual position when he and his family resettled in Paris. Since the end of the war in 1918 his Parisian friends had been clamoring for his return. As much as he loved Russia, and did not want to abandon his native land during the great revolution that was then re-shaping its destiny, he was certain that the optimum development and exposure of his work required that he live and paint in the West. Ambroise Vollard was eager to commission an illustrated book from him, and they soon agreed on Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls as its subject. People continued to talk about the magical paintings Chagall had done in Paris before the war, and the artists and poets of the nascent surrealist movement were now touting them as a harbinger of their own experimental exploration of dreams and the subconscious. It had become a serious deficiency, however, that Chagall neither possessed nor had access to many of his favorite and best-known images. Many works had been left behind in Russia. The Amsterdam pictures had been sold and dispersed. He had left a stack of Paris canvases under his bed in the "Ruche," ("Beehive"), the dilapidated artist's building where he had his pre-war studio. The authorities had taken over these rooms to house refugees during the war, but not before his friends had been able to remove the paintings, which they sold as best they could, with many going to the collector and critic Gustave Coquiot, who at least had them properly preserved and framed. Most irksome of all was the group of nearly 40 paintings he had sent in 1914--on the advice of his friend Guillaume Apollinaire just before the outbreak of the war--to Herwarth Walden for an exhibition at his Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin. Chagall had recently stayed in Berlin for nearly a year following his departure from Russia, and spent most of his time and effort there trying to recover these valuable paintings. Walden offered him a paltry sum in badly devalued Deutschmarks as compensation. Chagall refused it, and sued him instead. After lengthy proceedings Chagall lost the case, although the dealer's wife Nelly eventually returned three paintings following her divorce from Walden.

Soon after his return to Paris, Chagall rented a studio of suitable size, which he did have in Berlin, and began to paint again. In addition to working on the Gogol etchings for Vollard, Chagall embarked on a project to recreate his plundered artistic past; this effort, like the Gogol prints, was profoundly tied to memories of his youth, his Jewishness and Russia. From memory and sketches, and occasionally from photographs if they existed, he reconstructed a series of compositions that he had originally painted during his first Paris trip, the green Violoniste of 1912-1913 among them. Franz Meyer has written:

"The variants are not quite so true to the originals. Since in most cases Chagall painted them without having the originals before his eyes, he transposed the old motif into a new rhythm and a new color scheme though probably, as a rule, that was not his intention. They underwent a change in character Chagall first fell back on the motifs of his native land--very likely to satisfy his need to insist on what was "his own" in contrast to what was alien to him. Then too his paintings and drawings owed their character to the vehement outbreak of a new vital artistic force aroused by Paris. In the new Russian scenes the 'earthiness' does not signify heaviness or oppression. It expresses instead a new love of life, kindled by the smell, the taste and the touch of things... [These paintings] render a homely sphere full of the all-too-human humanity which belongs to Chagall and now blossoms again under a wave of new, peaceful, vital happiness" (op. cit., 333-334).

According to the recollections of both Chagall and his daughter Ida, the large Violiniste now in the The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (fig. 3) was probably painted soon after Chagall returned to Paris, in late 1923 or 1924 (A.Z. Rudenstine, op. cit., p. 74). It hews closely to the narrow vertical shape and imagery seen in the Kamerny Theater mural, which Chagall had painted only several years before. Solomon R. Guggenheim purchased it from the artist in 1936. The present version followed not long afterwards, and was then acquired by the family of the present owner. Chagall painted it on a smaller canvas, in the squarish format that he had utilized for the original painting of 1912-1913. Meyer has pointed out the differences between these two later Paris versions:

"The modification from the flat, luminous handling in the large picture to the full, granular texture of the small one; the rounding of the sharp, angular forms; the change from the narrow to broad canvas and the altered proportions of the figures that canvas encloses, are accompanied by small but typical modifications of the motifs. In the new version the mood tends to familiarity and intimacy: it does not seek to detach itself from the warm, terrestrial level. Friendly smoke rises from the chimney of the house. Earthy-warm too are the close-set motifs, the dense color, and the granular texture" (ibid.).

The fiddler, now more wizened than before, and largely divested of his cubist trappings, has come to life with great directness and immediacy in the present canvas. The life of the village musician was intimately bound up in the daily life and rituals of his community. He represented the sole expression of art that many poor village people would ever experience, as he presided over get-togethers of all kinds, celebrating births, birthdays and other anniversaries, bar mitzvahs and weddings. The great 19th century Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem described the fiddler Stempenyu in his tale of the same title:

"He took his violin, caressed it with his bow, and the violin began to speak. And how it spoke! A live, truly human voice. And in this voice was both a prayer and a reproach, a heart-rending sigh, an agonized cry, straight from the heart One no longer sees anything but his hand going up and down, and the sounds flow out, and the melodies pour out, all different, but above all melancholic and full of suffering. And those who are listening hold their breath; their hearts fill with emotion, tears spring to their eyes" (quoted in A. Kamensky, Chagall: The Russian Years, 1907-1922, New York, 1989, p. 145).

(fig. 1) Marc Chagall, Le violoniste, 1912-1913. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625443

(fig. 2) Marc Chagall, Music: Mural for the Kamerny Theater, Moscow, 1919-1920. State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625436

(fig. 3) Marc Chagall, Violoniste, 1923-1924. Courtesy of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (Gift, Solomon R. Guggenheim, 1937). Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 25239935

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