The late 1930s was a period of conflicting trends in Chagall's painting, reflecting the political turmoil of that era, as the great contest between democracy and fascism in Europe was coming to a head. In the spring of 1935 Chagall traveled to Poland to help inaugurate the Jewish Institute in Vilna; he also visited the ghetto in Warsaw. Growing anti-Semitism was visible everywhere. "Chagall came to realize once again and far more intensely than before the isolation of the Jews from the rest of population. Every detail of this Polish journey left a deep impression on him" (F. Meyer, op. cit.). Visions of the Jewish stettl were common in Chagall's work during this period, and in 1938 the artist painted his first crucifixion, in which the death of Christ the Jew becomes a symbol for the martyrdom of his entire people.
Musicians playing instruments were also featured frequently in pictures done during this period; it is as if their role is to sound a lament for the passing of an era or to evoke nostalgia for less fearful times. The fiddle, the chief instrument of the ghetto street musician, predominates, and the artist depicts the deep-toned cello and the wailing clarinet as well. The depiction of instruments serves as a bridging motif between these works and other happier themes of this period. Despite the fall of Spain to the fascists, the mood in Paris was more relaxed than elsewhere in Europe; in 1937 a universal exhibition was held in the Trocadero gardens. As Chagall had done ten years earlier, he embarked upon a series of circus pictures. Music was a central theme in this series.
In the present work the clown-musician is playing a lute-shaped mandolin, a less "serious" instrument than the violin, and one that is traditionally associated with the evening serenade of a loved one. Indeed, the minstrel's beloved is literally on his mind, from which a horse (perhaps emblematic of his passion) also springs.
For Chagall the circus performer was a universal symbol for humanity in both its tragic and comic aspects. The clown is clearly an emblem for the artist himself, as a conjuror of tales, a mime of sadness and joy. In 1967 Chagall wrote:
"The circus seems to me like the most tragic show on earth.
"Through the centuries, it has been the most poignant cry in man's search for amusement and joy. It often takes the form of high poetry. I seem to see a Don Quixote in search of an ideal, like that inspired clown who wept and dreamed of human love" (quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 197).