Etude pour la nuit de Vence signed 'Marc/ Chagall' (lower left) Indian ink, oil and on canvasboard on plywood 28.4 x 34.8cm (11 3/16 x 13 11/16in). Executed circa 1952-56
PROVENANCE Collection of the artist. Timothy Yarger Fine Art, Beverly Hills, California.
This work is sold with a replacement photo-certificate of authenticity from the Comité Chagall.
'Virtually alone among the major twentieth century artists, [Chagall] concerns himself with both tragedy and joy; his most characteristic work possesses a joie de vivre, a playful wit and sense of the fantastical rarely found in the art of any period. Also unusual is the unabashed celebration of romantic love to be found in so much of his work.' (M. Bohm-Duchen, Chagall, London, 1998, p.4)
In the first half of the twentieth century, Chagall was criticised for bringing too much narrative into play within his compositions and, more specifically, for being overly poetic and literary rather than fashionably abstract in his style and execution (ibid. p.5). But it is exactly these attributes that make paintings such as Etude pour la nuit de Vence intriguing. At the most basic level, this painting shows the extent of the sumptuous palette that Chagall used in the mid-twentieth century, but furthermore it reveals his nostalgia for times past, his enjoyment of the present, and provides insight into the impact that stained glass window art had on his pictorial technique from the 1950s onwards.
Chagall had made his home in Vence in 1950 and lived there until 1966 when he moved to nearby Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Between 1953 and 1956, Chagall was working on his 'Paris Series' - a joyous collection of works that reflect his contentment with life in France. They thereby punctuated the shift from Vitebsk-focussed narratives, reflecting the folk traditions of his Russian Jewish upbringing that previously filled his sketchbooks, to compositions that reflected his personal life against the backdrop of his new homeland. One such painting from the series is the highly atmospheric The bridges of the Seine (fig.1), which Chagall painted in 1954.
The canvas is divided into two distinct sections by the River Seine, with a mother and child appearing to float upon the wing of a cockerel to the left versus the image of a loving couple enveloped in rich blue pigment with a green goat to the right. Chagall uses this form of composition to describe alternative views of the same emotion: maternal love on the left and sexual love on the right. It is a comparison echoed by Etude pour la nuit de Vence produced two years later and was clearly a dichotomy that interested Chagall. In both works, the familiar image of the cockerel denotes fertility and female fruitfulness while the goat is an omnipresent image even in Chagall's very early folklore-centred works (such as The butcher, 1910). But there is much more to appreciate from this painting than this rather fundamental narrative; a deeper tale that Chagall is telling about his own life and experiences thus far.
To fully explore the autobiographical story that is hidden behind these compositions, it is necessary to consider Chagall's romantic history up to this point. Although the second half of Chagall's personal life was dominated by his marriage to Valentina Brodsky (whom he married in 1952), in fact his 'whole life had been marked by dependence on women: first his mother and six sisters; then, for the better part of the three decades, his beloved Bella, and after her death more improbably Virginia' (ibid. p.291). Chagall married Bella Rosenfeld in 1915 and they had great respect and love for one another. This Jewish couple sought safety in the United States during World War II but made the decision to move back to France after Paris was liberated on 25 August 1944. However, tragedy struck in America in early September when Bella became ill and was taken to hospital. There was no penicillin available because it was reserved for military use and by the time a special exemption for the use of the drug had finally been obtained from Washington the viral infection had run out of control and Bella was beyond saving. It was a devastating personal tragedy for Chagall and was the darkest period of his life (ibid. p.262). Chagall tried to synthesise everything he had loved (and his love for Bella) in large pictures evoking the past and the next world and henceforward, colour would become increasingly important in the artist's work as figures and objects, divested of their individuality and merged in a sort of diffuse lyricism, exuded a kind of luminous vibration (M. Souverbie, Chagall, London, 1975).
It had been assumed until relatively recently that Chagall grieved alone until his marriage to Valentina (Vava) four years before this picture was painted, but in this intervening period he formed a relationship with his married housekeeper, Virginia Haggard McNeil. They had a son, David, together. Virginia broke off her marriage to her husband and lived with Chagall in the United States and France for seven years but they never married. During this time Chagall experienced deep tensions and conflicting emotions because he regarded the situation as being unseemly in spite of his attraction to Virginia (Virginia was only able to obtain a divorce from John McNeil in 1951).
Both Etude pour la nuit de Vence and The bridges of the Seine (fig.1) express reverence for all these relationships. The position and choice of motifs depicted in the top left of both canvases, namely the violinist, cockerel and goat immersed in deep red pigment and floating in the night sky within Etude pour la nuit de Vence and the elevated, heavenly nursing mother with child and cockerel depicted in The bridges of the Seine, perhaps suggest the love that Chagall had cherished but ultimately lost with Virginia and their son. At the point that these paintings were completed, those emotional memories were relatively fresh. And opposing the aforementioned area of the composition and to the bottom of each canvas, is a beautifully haunting image of a couple who lie locked in an embrace and somewhat hidden within the landscape. It is very possible that this represents the roots and memory of love that he and Bella shared throughout their years together, but alternatively it may signify the sexual love for Vava that Chagall was experiencing at the time of painting. The viewer may never be sure of the identities of the women depicted in each work, but certainly it is an insight into the complex and emotional psyche of the artist himself.
Further to Chagall's personal narrative, Etude pour la nuit de Vence is insightful as a composition that indicates the influence of the craft of stained glass windows on his work. Chagall's first direct experience of the stained glass medium was in 1952, when he visited Chartres Cathedral and made detailed studies of its magnificent Gothic windows. In fact, the intense, luminous colour that is characteristic of many of his paintings of the early 1950s is due in no small measure to this encounter (M. Bohm-Duchen, op.cit. p.299). Notable in Etude pour la nuit de Vence is the black outlining to each of the blocks of colour on the canvas, just as black lead would be manipulated to define each coloured pane of glass. Furthermore, the viewer is struck by the sphere of bright white paint within the upper area of the composition; a design that recurs within Chagall's work for the Synagogue of Hadassah Medical Centre that he designed in 1960-1962, which contains a clearly defined sphere of white glass with diagonal 'rays' emitting from it to visually describe God's light over the world.
While on the one hand Chagall's painting was deeply affected by his autobiographical experiences, on the other, his technique and compositional style stayed true to the deep-rooted sense of folklore and religious heritage that his family had nurtured for centuries. Etude pour la nuit de Vence is a significant painting because of its allegiance to both.