Executed in 1911-1912, La grande roue is a major painting from a pivotal period in Chagall's career. The artist left his home in Vitesbk in 1910, settling in Paris in the summer of that year at the age of twenty. Two days after his arrival in France, he visited the Salon des Indépendants, where he saw the work of a whole panoply of contemporary French artists, including the Fauves, the Cubists, and the Orphists. Shortly thereafter, he took 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. Immersed in this atmosphere of rich cultural exchange, Chagall entered a phase of intense creativity and imaginative growth and by 1914 he had become one of the leading figures of the European avant-garde, whose work, while never relinquishing its highly idiosyncratic character, displayed total comprehension of the aesthetic discourse of his time.
Despite Chagall's enthusiasm for Paris, nearly all the paintings that he executed during his first stay there hark back nostalgically to peasant life in his hometown of Vitesbk. The present picture, in fact, is one of only two large-scale views of Paris that Chagall made during this period; the other, Paris through the Window of 1913, is now housed in Guggenheim Museum (Meyer, p. 207). The composition of the present work is almost certainly based upon a contemporary postcard that depicts the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris wheel, Parisian landmarks from the Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900 (fig. 1). Chagall's choice of motif may have been inspired as well by the work of his friend and mentor Robert Delaunay, whose Tour Eiffel series of 1909-1912 helped to establish his reputation as a leader among the emerging generation of artists. Like Delaunay's paintings of the Parisian cityscape, La grande roue depicts the capital as pulsating and dynamic. The tension between the sweeping curve of the Ferris wheel and the sharp peak of the Eiffel Tower lends the composition an unusual vitality, which is accentuated by the arresting palette of acid lemon and green. Moreover, the box-cars of the Ferris wheel are depicted in fractured planes that express their rotation through space --their sens giratoire, to use Delaunay's term (quoted in W. Haftmann, Marc Chagall, New York, 1984, p. 32). The liberated and emotive palette of the picture is indebted both to Van Gogh and the Fauves, while the prismatic diffraction of space represents the influence of the Cubists.
As Dorothy King has noted, the inscription "PARI" in the lower left corner of the picture is a witty verbal pun, of the same sort that Picasso and Braque were using in their paintings and papiers collés at this time. By omitting the "S" from "PARIS," Chagall has left the French word for "bet," probably a reference to the Ferris wheel as a wheel of fortune. Delaunay incorporated the same word in a sketch for L'équipe de cardiff (Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris), exhibited in Berlin in January 1913, and the poet Blaise Cendrars used it in his long poem La Prose du Transsibérien, published the same September. Indeed, Cendrars may have been the one to suggest the pun to Chagall. The two were very close during Chagall's years at La Rûche, and Cendrars is known to have titled several of Chagall's paintings, including To Russia, Asses, and Others and I and the Village.
(fig. 1) Postcard of Paris, La Grande Roue et la Tour Eiffel.