The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
The circus became one of Chagall's favorite subjects during his early years in Paris, and remained so throughout his career. His experience and memory of clowns, acrobats and young ladies on horseback lay at the heart of his personal mythology. He joined a long and distinguished line of Impressionist and Modern painters who featured the circus in their work, including Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, Van Dongen and Léger. In 1927, as Chagall was finishing his series of one hundred gouaches based on the fables of La Fontaine, the dealer Ambroise Vollard, sponsor of this project, suggested that the artist undertake a second group of pictures, based this time on the theme of the circus. Chagall painted a suite of gouaches, Le cirque Vollard (Meyer, nos. 481-501), many of which were based on sketches that he drew while enjoying the spectacle of the Paris Cirque d'Hiver from Vollard's reserved box seats. The variety of the characters and their performing roles in these works provided elements to which the artist subsequently returned on many occasions.
Chagall painted Cirque au cheval rouge four decades later. The artist has here assumed the role of the clown, as he embraces his bride, a bareback rider whose red mount, unbridled and unsaddled--a symbol of the passion and intensity of love--awaits her in the background. A fellow clown plays a celebratory tune on his clarinet, accompanied by the cellist at lower left. The close-up and intimate view of the couple in the foreground recalls Chagall's nuptial pictures, introspective reminiscences of his beloved first wife Bella, contrasted here against the setting of the circus ring and audience-filled bleachers, which represent the larger, public world which surrounds the young lovers and bears witness to their private bliss. The overall blue tonality reinforces the dreamlike aspect of this tender scene.
Chagall's circus pictures stand out among his subjects as being especially joyous and life-affirming. Nevertheless, the artist's experience of the circus was tinged with introspection and melancholy, feelings which are apparent in reminiscences he wrote in 1966:
''For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.
These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have 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 can dream of painting new psychic distortions.
It is a magic word, circus, a timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of a great art. The circus seems to me like the most tragic show on earth.
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 to ask her how to live, how to escape from myself, from the world, whom to run to, where to go." (in ''The Circus," in Marc Chagall, Le cirque: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1981).