Executed between 1914-1915 Rue àVitebsk was painted at the time when Chagall had returned from Paris to his hometown, Vitebsk, in Russia. Having intended to visit Russia only briefly, the outbreak of war would prevent Chagall from returning to Paris until 1923. During this period, Chagall turned his artistic eye to the quotidian life of Vitebsk, to the rituals and routines that dominated life in the small village, and the characters whose stories played out amongst its winding streets. 'I painted everything I saw,' he later wrote. 'I was satisfied with a hedge, a signpost, a floor, a chair' (M. Chagall, quoted in J. Wullschlager, Chagall: A Biography, New York, 2008, p. 182). Indeed, Chagall called works such as Rue àVitebsk, 'documents' (F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, New York, 1963, p. 217), of his time in Vitebsk, due to the sense of naturalism that they convey. In contrast to many of the dreamlike, fantastical and experimental images that Chagall had created while in Paris, Rue àVitebsk is rooted in a sense of reality and observation. Vitebsk was no longer a nostalgic memory, as it had been while the artist was in Paris, but had become a vivid reality, which, in the present work, Chagall transposes with great precision and poignance.
It’s only my town, mine, which I have rediscovered.
I come back to it with emotion.
It was at this time that I painted my Witebsk series of 1914. I painted everything that met my eyes. I painted at my window, I never walked down the street without my box of paints.”
I painted everything I saw, I was satisfied with a hedge, a signpost, a floor, a chair.”
However, it is also true that Rue àVitebsk displays some of the influences of Chagall’s first trip to Paris. Having travelled there at the age of twenty, the artist would take a studio in bohemian Montparnasse in a legendary building known as La Rûche, home to many of the most innovative painters and poets of the day, including Chaïm Soutine, Alexander Archipenko, Amedeo Modigliani, Ossip Zadkine and Fernand Léger. Immersed in this atmosphere of rich cultural exchange, Chagall entered a phase of intense creativity and imaginative growth. It was during this time that the young painter found the means to fully articulate his wholly unique form of painterly expression, one that rejected naturalism in order to create dreamlike narratives in which the impossible becomes possible. In its somewhat non-representational treatment of scale and volume, Rue àVitebsk represents a synthesis of Chagall’s earlier interest in folkloric subject matter with a new type of stylistic innovation where it is possible to see scale, proportion, volume, and even gravity becoming liberated from their traditional conventions. Here we see Chagall starting to push the boundaries of natural perspective and use the intersecting planes and angles of the buildings and pylons, to move the viewer’s eye playfully throughout the scene, populated by his distinguishable characters as they appear to descend dynamically through the composition.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).