The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
"My paintings are my memories."
(M. Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva Marc Chagall: 1887-1985, New York, 1998, p. 265)
Painted circa 1966, L’hiver contains many of Marc Chagall's most famous motifs and themes, with music, flowers, romance and an overarching dreamlike strangeness brought vividly to life by the range of fantastical characters that populate this canvas. Amongst its most imaginative elements are a rooster-headed man playing a wind instrument, a cellist riding on the back of a flying goat, and between them, a woman who appears to be a bride, decked largely in white and clutching a vast bouquet. Each of these figures were a recurring feature within the artist’s oeuvre, used as multifaceted symbols to create works of increasingly complex personal narratives. Discussing his use of these symbolic leitmotifs, Chagall compared himself to a writer, explaining: "Poets always use the same letters, but out of them they constantly recreate different words" (Chagall, quoted in ibid., 1998, p. 269). Chagall’s imagination and artistic skills ensured that the recurrence of these motifs was never repetitive, and instead offered something new and unique in each composition. In the dreamlike mixture of fantastical, whimsical elements that make up L’hiver there is an atmosphere of surnaturel celebration, in part conjured by the wintery atmosphere and the cloak of dark night which enshrouds so much of the background. Created at the beginning of a period of intense reflection and retrospection for the artist, this work demonstrates the central importance of memory in Chagall’s work, particularly as he entered the twilight years of his career and began to look back on his life through rose-tinted glasses of retrospection.
Indeed, it is nostalgia most of all that fills L’hiver and lends it its engaging charm. For in the buildings that are visible at the bottom of the canvas, we perceive not the houses of Chagall's adopted home, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, but rather his native Vitebsk. This traditional shtetl, with its distinctive buildings and rural character, was a fundamental source of inspiration for the artist, who referred to it as "the soil that nourished the roots of my art" (Chagall, quoted in ibid, p. 19). Vitebsk remained vivid in his mind following his departure for Paris in 1922, even though the artist would never again return to the small town, and became intrinsically bound to Chagall’s memories of his youth. While that childhood was in many ways difficult, not least in terms of the finances of his family and the adversity that they faced as Jews within the largely—and institutionally—anti-Semitic Russian Empire, Chagall's memories of his distant past, the vanished way of life of his homeland and his lost former identity continued to provide artistic inspiration for the rest of his life, emerging in dream-like, magical scenes such as that in L’hiver. Here, Chagall depicts his hometown under a layer of light snow, the carpet of white blanketing the houses and streets of the little village. Just as he recalled with bittersweet fondness his mother feeding him gruel, so too the cold of the winters of yesteryear is forgotten, idealized, and transformed into something mysterious and mystical, a wondrous backdrop to a scene of strange musical ritual and joy.
At the heart of the composition are the figures of the bride and the red human-cockerel hybrid, the intimacy of their connection emphasized by the intense eye contact they share. The cockerel, a symbol of virility and masculinity, is fused with the image of a man in a typically-Chagallian moment of whimsy. He appears to glance flirtatiously at the bride, as he serenades her with a tune from his recorder-like instrument, and she in turn appears drawn towards him, a slight blush visible in her cheeks as a smile lights up her features. These figures may be interpreted as a symbolic portrait of the artist and his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld, and the scene as a reimagining of the artist’s courtship of his greatest muse. Chagall had met Bella in Vitebsk in 1909, and claims to have fallen in love with her immediately. Recalling their initial encounter in his autobiography, My Life, the artist revealed the intense emotions he felt upon seeing her for the first time: "Her silence is mine. Her eyes mine. I feel she has known me always, my childhood, my present life, my future; as if she were watching over me, divining my innermost being…I knew this is she, my wife..." (Chagall, My Life, London, 2013, p. 77). The two were wed in 1915, and enjoyed a happy and romantic marriage until Bella passed away in New York in 1944. Her death had a profound affect on the artist and in the years immediately following her passing Chagall was haunted by the phantom of Bella, her likeness appearing as a ghost-like form in a number of his compositions. However, by 1966, Chagall was happily ensconced in his life in the south of France, content in his relationship with his second wife Vava, and once again able to look back on his life with Bella and their youth with a new degree of clarity. In L’hiver, the artist immortalizes a romanticized memory of the early stages of their relationship, celebrating the intense passion and deep love they shared in a joyous, rather than melancholy, manner.
This atmosphere is enhanced by the inclusion of a second musician in the upper right corner of the composition–a brightly colored fiddler, fancifully fused with his instrument, his torso substituted for a play of curves and strings. The violinist was a recurring figure in Chagall’s art, rooted in his Hasidic Jewish upbringing where music was an integral component in local religious processions, feast days, community celebrations and weddings. Chagall associated the character with joy, happiness and celebration, and the violinist gradually became an emblematic motif in his art, often being used to heighten the merry atmosphere of a scene. It is in such a whimsical arsenal of characters and objects that feature in L’hiver and Chagall's other works that we perceive why, in former decades, he had been such a source of fascination to Guillaume Apollinaire and the Surrealists. But it is telling that Chagall retained a distance from that movement, and, in particular, from its intellectualization. For him, art was something that emanated from emotions, not from thoughts. His strange and magical world, the carnival of scenes such as L’hiver—these are deeply rooted in his most personal feelings, which have then collided in his mind, in a combination of dream and memory. As he himself commented, "If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing" (Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, Chagall: A Retrospective, Westport, 1995, p. 16). For Chagall, capturing this imaginary world of emotion on the canvas allowed him to translate his memories to his viewers, to share it, and thereby invite others to partake in the joy of life that he himself felt.
In L’hiver, this magical world is made all the more vivid and electric by the contrast between the black and white that dominates so much of the canvas and the firework-like flashes of color in the flowers and in the red outfit of the left-hand figure. For Chagall, color had always been one of the most integral elements of a composition, describing it as "the pulse of a work of art" (Chagall, quoted in ibid, p. 180). To some degree, Chagall's appreciation of color had grown immensely during the latter half of his career, partly informed by his experiences in making stained glass windows. Throughout the 1960s Chagall had been commissioned to design a number of stained glass projects, and in the years immediately preceding the creation of the present work Chagall unveiled his monumental window Peace for the United Nations headquarters in New York, as well as his work for the synagogue of the Hebrew University Medical Centre near Jerusalem, and the ambulatory of the Cathedral of St. Étienne in Metz. The use and manipulation of pure color in these projects is echoed here, with the surface of the canvas filled with a series of vibrant, frenzied brushstrokes, encapsulating a sense of the artist’s vigorous painterly technique and adding a sense of bursting energy, vitality and sparkling magic to the canvas. In this way, Chagall emphasizes the impression that this scene represents a joyous occasion, far removed from the bleak midwinters that may have been experienced during his youth, as he remembers the color and love that Bella brought to final years in Vitebsk.