The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
As Chagall here reveals, his conception of Le grand cirque included not only the dazzling spectacle under the big top and all its many players and onlookers–he made the circus an all-encompassing allegory for life itself, as he had known and experienced it. He regales the viewer with a wondrous shower of light from both sun and moon, as the circus band in the balcony trumpets sonorous hallelujahs to the crowd below. The town in which he was born, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement of old Russia, is spread out below. From it he arises to his place in the big ring, with book in hand–“this,” he proclaims for all to hear, “is my story!”
Chagall never forgot an incident going back to his years as a young man in the Belarusian town of Vitebsk, when he watched a father and his young children, members of an indigent family hoping to earn a few pennies for bread, perform on the street some clumsy but strenuous acrobatic stunts. The passing public deemed their efforts more pathetic than applaudable, and Chagall sadly watched as they afterwards walked away, unappreciated and empty-handed. Then and at certain other times during his career, Chagall must have pondered that this might similarly become the fate of anyone who fancied for himself the life of an artist: “It seemed as if I had been the one bowing up there” (from Chagall’s 1967 text Le Cirque).
If, on the other hand, he were as an artist talented and fortunate enough, there might be an altogether more favorable outcome in store for him. Chagall summoned the experience of circus performance–clowns, acrobats and young ladies riding bareback on horses, the ringside stands brimming with spectators, the total spectacle of the circus, in all its colorful variety–as a vivid metaphor for the life he had decided to lead. The vision and dream of the circus became the very heart of his personal mythology.
As the exuberant scenes in many of Chagall’s circus paintings attest, the primary attraction for him in any circus, great or small, was the bareback rider. “All seem to be assembled here only for the glory of the bareback rider, her scintillation, the incitement of her revolutions,” Louis Aragon wrote of Chagall’s circus scenes. “We are caught up in the movement of the woman circling the ring, she whose beauty is the beauty of danger, waiting for her to come around again, until all the men watching with bated breath reach the point of being jealous of the horse” (quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, pp. 195-196).
Chagall’s rider is typically an irresistible beauty, hardly more than a girl, who in her brief costume bestrides the back of a horse, which–given the inconsistencies of size and scale that are commonplace in this artist’s magical world–is usually smaller than the rider herself, so lovely and larger than life was she in Chagall’s infatuated gaze. “I would like to go up to that bareback rider who has just reappeared, smiling; her dress, a bouquet of flowers,” Chagall wrote in Le Cirque. “I would circle her with my flowered and unflowered years. On my knees, I would tell her my wishes and dreams, not of this world. I would run after her to ask her how to live, how to escape from myself, from the world, whom to run to, where to go.”
From early on and ever thereafter, Chagall would invariably associate this girl of exceptional skill with his feelings of longing and desire. Picasso’s first teen love in Barcelona was the circus equestrienne Rosita del Oro. The young woman who would eventually fill Chagall’s life in all the ways he could desire was Bella Rosenfeld, of Vitebsk, his beloved first wife, whom he married in 1915. Their rapturous union ended with her death in 1944, but even after his second marriage in 1952, Bella remained the artist’s eternal bride.
Compared to anything Chagall could have seen in Russia, Paris in the early years of the 20th century was a circus-goer’s paradise. When the artist arrived there in June 1911 he soon discovered the famed Cirque Médrano on the edge of Montmartre and the Cirque d’Hiver in the 11ème arrondissement. Chagall painted a notably modernist picture of a female acrobat before returning to his homeland in mid-1914. He thereby joined a long and distinguished line of painters working in France who featured the circus in their work, a line stemming from Watteau–a favorite of Chagall–and thereafter including Daumier, Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and among his immediate contemporaries, Picasso, Rouault, Van Dongen and Léger.
Ambroise Vollard, Chagall’s dealer and the publisher of his prints during the 1920s and 30s, was a great aficionado of the circus. In 1927, as Chagall was finishing the gouaches that Vollard had commissioned to illustrate La Fontaine’s Fables, his dealer proposed another project, this time a suite of gouaches celebrating the circus. The Fables gouaches earned for Chagall more than 190,000 francs. Not that the artist needed any further incentive, but Vollard offered him free use of his season box at the Cirque d’Hiver, of which the artist happily availed himself, “because the circus was a lovely place to take his daughter,” Sidney Alexander has written. “Marc was as childishly delighted with it as Ida” (Chagall: A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 292).
Chagall painted his circus series in two sets, nineteen gouaches in all, which became known as the Cirque Vollard (Meyer, nos. 481-501). The artist based many of these works on sketches he drew while enjoying the spectacle of the Cirque d’Hiver. The sheer exhilaration of these pictures, their unalloyed joy and life-affirming spirit, contrasts sharply with the somber clowns and circus queens of Rouault, another artist who produced illustrations on the circus theme for Vollard.
The circus subjects that Chagall developed in 1926-1930 would continue to bear fruit for the next half century of this artist’s amazingly long life. Notwithstanding the irrepressible high spirits that everywhere burst forth in the present Le grand cirque, and may always be savored in Chagall’s treatment of this genre, the artist inwardly perceived a bittersweet side to this spectacle, an underlying aspect of the circus dream that is equally present here if not so plainly expressed in paint. These thoughts pervade the text Chagall wrote in his 1967 homage to the circus (Le cirque, trans. Patsy Southgate, in Le Cirque: Circus Paintings, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1981, n.p.), excerpted here:
“For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.
“These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces? With them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colors and make-up, I can dream of painting new psychic distortions.
“It is a magic word, circus, a timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of a 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.”
[FIG A] Marc Chagall, L’Acrobate, 1914. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
[FIG B] Marc Chagall, L’Acrobate à cheval, 1927-1928. Sold, Christie’s New York, 7 November 2007, lot 143.
[FIG C] Marc Chagall, Au cirque, 1976. Sold, Christie’s New York, 5 November 2013, lot 7.