Cirque signed and dated 'Chagall 1945' (lower left); signed again 'Marc Chagall' (on the canvas turnover) oil on hessian laid down on canvas 25.3 x 20.4cm (9 15/16 x 8 1/16in). Painted in 1945
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.
The circus was one of Chagall's most celebrated motifs and a subject to which he would return throughout his career. Following his arrival in Paris in the 1920s, he was regularly invited by the dealer Ambroise Vollard to take his box at the famous Parisian Cirque d'Hiver, in the hope that it would inspire the artist to produce a set of etchings on a circus theme. Over the winter of 1926-27 Chagall produced nineteen vividly painted gouaches based on the sketches and observations he made there, now known as the Cirque Vollard. In doing so, he joined artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Rouault in the widespread contemporary interest in the burlesque and the carnival, but this self-contained world of fantasy and gravity-defying magic surely also has unique parallels in Chagall's own art.
Chagall's fascination with the circus dated back beyond Vollard's invitation, to his childhood memories of travelling acrobats, musicians and jesters visiting his home town of Vitebsk in Russia. Although fascinated by their spellbinding entertainment, the artist was also struck by the false and lonely nature of these players' lives:
'It is a magic word, circus, a timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of great art. But what do most of these circus people earn? A piece of bread. Night brings them solitude, sadness. Until the next day when the evening flooded with electric lights announces a new old-life... The circus seems to me like the most tragic show on earth.' (Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva (ed.), Chagall: A Retrospective, Westport, 1995, p.197).
This duality of tears and smiles is particularly relevant to Chagall at the time of executing the present work, just a year after the unexpected death of his first wife, Bella. Living in exile in America in 1944, the couple were making plans to return to the newly liberated Paris when Bella fell ill with a sore throat which tragically and needlessly killed her in September that year. Unable to paint for almost a year after her death, the artist found comfort in both a new relationship with Virginia Haggard McNeil, and by reworking familiar themes and subjects in his work. Chagall's circus paintings were previously amongst his most joyous compositions, but the present work is tinged with a greater sense of melancholy. Painted on an intimate scale, Cirque is dominated by the luminous woman on horseback. Nude yet swathed in a rich red pigment, she immediately draws our gaze. The slightly bashful clown on the left is similarly captivated by her, and both are overlooked by the curious trapeze artist in the top right corner. Perhaps the artist depicts Bella, at the forefront of the work and of his mind, filled with life-affirming colour yet separated from us and the other players in her own isolated sphere of pigment. Chagall had long felt a pull towards this central figure in the circus ring, imbuing her with an almost religious sense of salvation:
'I would like to go up to that bareback rider who has just reappeared, smiling... 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 and ask her how to live, how to escape from myself, from the world, whom to run to, where to go.' (ibid., p.197).