The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
The central characters in many of Chagall's paintings are lovers or newlyweds, people caught up in the early excitement of love, who have abandoned themselves to love, and have completely surrendered themselves unto each other. For Chagall and his first wife Bella, who were married in 1915 and lived together for almost three decades, this experience of love took a shared intensity that appeared to never falter or fade.
It came as a devastating blow to Chagall when Bella suffered an early and unnecessary death from a viral infection in 1944, while they were living in upstate New York during the Second World War. Penicillin could have saved her, but this new drug had been set aside solely for military use. Chagall's adoration for Bella grew even greater following her passing, and he continued to celebrate her impact on his life in many paintings. He had an extended liaison during the late 1940s and early 1950s with Virginia Haggard McNeil and fathered a son by her, and indeed he married again in 1952, this time to Valentine ("Vava") Brodsky, after a courtship that lasted only a few months. The pleasant reality of daily domestic intimacy, however, could never upstage the power of the mythic eternal moment that Chagall had created around the memory of Bella, or diminish those feelings now permanently fixed within the artist's mind, which had become the central vault in the great storehouse of his boundless imagination. In the present painting, done more than a quarter-century after Bella's death, Chagall and his beloved, unmarked by death or the passing of time, float over Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the hilltop town in Provence that the artist made his home in 1950. Sidney Alexander has written:
"Chagall and Bella remained lovers, though married; monogamous but not monotonous; lovers to the end, in a story so felicitous as to offer little drama to the biographer or novelist. Out of this domestic Eden, lived and remembered, poured an endless series of painted epithalamia: Bella as goddess, Bella as Venus, Bella as Bathsheba; Bella as the Shulamite of the Song of Songs; Bella as bride in her sperm-spurting gown, a sex comet; Bella as a white whish of rocket soaring toward the moon Even after her death (when he was living with Virginia) whenever he painted a brideit was Bella; whenever he painted a bridal veilit referred to Bella" (in Marc Chagall, A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 82).
Part of this enduring immersion in Bella's memory was any man's nostalgia for the great love of his youth. Chagall was fortunate enough to have married his first true love, and he cultivated these wonderful memories like an ever mindful gardener. He wrote a detailed narrative of his life as a young man in two versions. The artist titled the early text My Own World, which he wrote in Yiddish and completed in 1924. He dedicated it to an unlikely combination, "For Rembrandt, Cézanne, My mother, My wife." He subsequently revised and completed it, with Bella helping to translate it into French, as Ma Vie, "My Life," which was published in 1931. Benjamin Harshav has pointed out, "Chagall himself was amazed at the unbelievable road he had traveled from his origins to international acclaim. All his life he wanted to tell a story, which he did, both in art and in words. He would show the exotic and vital world of his origins to the baffled modernist culture, on the one hand, and bring the new stylistic features of modern art to the representation of the culture of his origins, on the other hand" (in Marc Chagall and his Times, Stanford, 2004, p. 71).
Chagall's first encounter with Bella, their subsequent courtship and marriage is a pivotal section in My Life, as it appears in many paintings as well, made throughout his career (see lot 79). Bella shared this enthusiasm, and also wrote about these events, in even more detail, in her own memoir, First Encounter, which Chagall illustrated and brought to publication in 1947, several years after her death. Bella recalled the genesis of the painting L'anniversaire (fig. 1), in which Chagall introduced his signature depiction of levitating figures, and she alluded to the artist's subsequent depictions of figures in full flight (fig. 2), a phenomenon she experienced as excitedly and magically as did her husband:
"You plunged the brushes into the paint so fast that red and blue, black and white flew through the air. They swept me with them. I suddenly felt as if I were taking off. You too were poised on one leg, as if the little room could no longer contain you. You soared up to the ceiling Then together we floated up above the room with all its finery, and flew. Through the window a cloud and a patch of blue sky called to us. The brightly hung walls whirled around us. We flew over fields of flowers, shuttered houses, roofs, yards, churches" (in First Encounter, trans. B. Bray, New York, 1983, p. 228).
Alexander has surmised, "Apparently from the day Marc Chagall met Bella, they ceased to walk on the ground. They soared over Vitebsk, Paris, Moscow, Leningrad, Berlin, New York, Cranberry Lake. Their life together was one long nuptial flight" (op. cit.).
Saint-Paul dans la nuit bleue is Chagall's poignant evocation of Bella the departed one, the experience of her loss and her transfiguration. She is a pale but unmistakable presence cast in the whiteness of an apparition, summoned forth from the vast blueness of infinite time and space, and translated to the present, so that both Chagall and his beloved embrace as they did long ago, floating above the world, still in it, but not bound to it by normal earthly forces. She carries a fan, as in a photograph taken on the eve of the Second World War (fig. 3). It is a remarkable vision, all the more amazing because it appears as if it were merely one aspect of the grand view that Chagall would have beheld from his villa La Collines overlooking Vence. A beneficent angel, accompanied by a dove, offers a gift of flowers, the celestial equivalent of the large bouquet that adorns a table in his home. A glass, a half-empty bottle of wine, and a compotier of fruit lay nearby, a reminder that this day is but one among many that come and go.
Chagall, like Picasso, had a long career, and an extended and fully productive late phase. When Chagall painted Saint-Paul dans la nuit bleue in 1970, he was 83--he would live to the age of 97. Picasso was 89 in 1970, and died three years later. Both men were fond of revisiting in their late works the people and events of a life lived long and well; each constructed his own particular staging of a kind of theater of memory. Picasso had his muse at his side, in the person of his young wife Jacqueline, and his works remained insistently vital in their robust physicality. Chagall had Vava, the muse of the here and now, while Bella was the muse of the eternal moment, whom he could behold only in his mind's eye, in the glowing light of memory. Chagall's late paintings, consequently, possess a more evanescent, dreamlike quality. They complete the picture of Chagall's long journey, as Chagall brought Bella's spirit, and with it memories of Old Russia, the shtetl, their love of Yiddish and other elements of their passionately shared Jewishness, into the ancient Mediterranean world in which he had finally settled.
(fig. 1) Marc Chagall, L'anniversaire, 1915. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625467
(fig. 2) Marc Chagall, Au-dessus le village, 1914-1918. The State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625450
(fig. 3) Marc and Bella Chagall in front of the painting Les fiancés, circa 1939. Photograph by P.B. Lipntizky. BARCODE 25238549