The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Painted in 1949, La belle rousse ou Les cheveux rouges poetically conjoins the two elements from Chagall’s deeply personal iconography—the tenderly embracing couple and the abundant floral bouquet—that together came to embody his vision of romantic love, which for him was both motivation and motif. “In it lies the true Art: from it comes my technique, my religion,” Chagall explained. “All other things are a sheer waste of energy, waste of means, waste of life, of time... Art, without Love—whether we are ashamed or not to use that well-known word—such a plastic art would open the wrong door” (quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, Westport, 1995, p. 179).
The red-haired, swan-necked woman in this joyful idyll is Virginia Haggard McNeil, Chagall’s young paramour in the years immediately following the Second World War. The artist and his cherished wife Bella had spent their wartime exile in New York, where a sudden illness claimed Bella’s life in September 1944. Virginia, 28 years Chagall’s junior and the mother of a young daughter, entered his life as his housekeeper only nine months later. The artist was deeply grieving Bella’s loss, and Virginia was unhappy and rebellious in her marriage; each of them felt “starved,” Virginia later recalled, but they found, most unexpectedly, a new love together. Their son David was born on 22 June 1946, and they returned to France as a family in August 1948, re-uniting with Chagall’s 32-year-old daughter Ida.
During the ensuing years, Chagall mingled in his work the images of Bella and Virginia, who represented in his imagination the spiritual and sensual aspects of love—an ideal union of divine mystery and human yearning. Bella is almost always seen in a bridal veil, while Virginia is nude or wears contemporary, worldly dress, as here. The deep blue tonality of the present canvas evokes a nocturnal, dream-like quality, the intermingling of myth, memory, and metamorphosis, while the flowers have a vital, effervescent, and life-affirming immediacy that constitutes instead a paean to earthly joys. The couple seems to emanate from the brightly illuminated bouquet of blossoms, which bursts forth against the blue ground like a pyrotechnic display.
“The conjunction is one that particularly appealed to Chagall,” Susan Compton has written, “a bouquet of flowers being the archetypal gift for a lover to bring. Yet cut flowers are ephemeral: through man’s artifice their beauty is arranged momentarily. So in these themes the artist reminds us of the impermanence as well as the ecstasy of human love” (Chagall, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1985, p. 212).
Chagall’s relationship with Virginia, indeed, would soon begin to founder. The disparity in their ages and religious backgrounds took its toll; Virginia increasingly realized, moreover, that their daily domestic intimacy could never rival the mythic eternal moment that the artist had created around the memory of Bella. In April 1952, after seven years together, Chagall and Virginia parted ways, she taking the two children. Around the same time, through Ida, Chagall met Valentina Brodsky, a Jewish, Russian-born divorcée in her mid-forties, whom he married in July.