In 1910, Marc Chagall took a train from his native Russia to Paris. After a four-day journey, he arrived in the city that would come to represent for him both freedom and light. He secured a small studio in the artists' quarter of Montparnasse, and though he would take classes at the art schools La Palette and La Grande Chaumière, visits to the Louvre served as his true inspiration. Thanks to the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev and his coterie, all things Russian had become extremely fashionable in Paris. And while Chagall associated somewhat with these compatriots, including Diaghilev's scenic designer Léon Bakst, he ultimately found this circle too extravagant for his less cultivated tastes.
In the winter of 1911, Chagall left Montparnasse for the suburb of La Ruche, which biographer Sidney Alexander describes as "an ambiguous zone of misery--neither city nor country, near the slaughterhouses of the Vaugirard district" (in Marc Chagall: A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 118). His studio, larger than his previous one in Paris, was situated in a settlement populated by fellow artists--Chaïm Soutine, Alexander Archipenko, Amedeo Modigliani, Ossip Zadkine and Fernand Léger all held studios there. It was this swarm of densely-packed artistic activity that lent the settlement its name: "La Ruche", or "the bee hive."
La Ruche's proximity to the butchers' district provided lively, if sometimes unsavory, surroundings for these artists. Alexander explains that "the nights at La Ruche were brightened with rowdy meetings, songs, and music, or else tumultuous riots and squabbles fomented by the 'tuers'--the 'killers'--of the neighboring slaughterhouses who penetrated into the area, wildly drunk, sowing terror" (ibid., p. 123). The present painting is clearly motivated by Chagall's unruly neighbors, and in it he captures their frenzied, Dionysian spirit. The nearby presence of these butchers also reminded the artist of his home in Vitebsk, for which he always remained nostalgic. "The proximity to the slaughterhouses was, as it were, the blown-up memory of his grandfather's barn," Alexander writes. "The stench of blood was always in the air" (ibid., p. 124).
Such slaughterhouse depictions became the signature of another of the settlement's Jewish artists, Chaïm Soutine (fig. 1). But rather than populating his abattoir scenes, as Chagall does here, Soutine zooms in, as it were, on the flesh itself. And "unlike Soutine's savage killings [Chagall's] cattle were always painted with compassion...For Marc, every slaughtering was a Crucifixion: a necessary sacrifice to give nourishment to the body or nourishment to the soul" (ibid., p. 126). This aesthetic difference reflected a more personal one between the two artists. While Chagall embodied the artist as docile dreamer, Soutine fulfilled the stereotype of the rough, filthy artist, dressed in rags and prone to explosive intrusions.
Chagall's closest companion at La Ruche was the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars, who had also arrived in Paris in 1910, pausing his ceaseless travels long enough to live among the artists of the beehive. In his 19 Poèmes élastiques, Cendrars paints a verbal portrait of his friend Chagall at work:
He is awake
Suddenly he paints
He grabs a church and paints with a church
Her grabs a cow and paints with a cow
With a sardine
With heads, hands, knives
He paints with a bull's tendon
He paints with all the grubby passions of a little Jewish village
With all the exacerbated sexuality of a Russian province
(fig. 1) Chaïm Soutine, Boeuf et tête de veau, 1923.