DescriptionMARC CHAGALL (Belarussian/French, 1887-1985)
Fleurs et couple, circa 1948-52
Gouache, pastel, pen, brush and India ink on paper laid
down on canvas
25-1/4 x 19-1/2 inches (64 x 49.5 cm)
Signed at lower right: Marc Chagall
Lot includes letter of Authenticity by Chagall Committee
Justin K. Thannhauser (1892-1976), New York;
Jacob M. Goldschmidt (1882-1955), New York (sold in December 1954 to the following);
Elisabeth Hirsch, until circa 1999;
Christie's, New York, 13 May 1999, lot 336
Early in his prolific career as a painter, draftsman, printmaker, illustrator, ceramicist, sculptor, and stained glass designer, the Belarussian-born artist Marc Chagall developed a distinctive repertoire of imagery and themes with deeply personal significance. Dreamlike and folkloric in appearance, Chagall's artistic iconography includes embracing couples floating through space, above farms and cityscapes with domed structures reminiscent of his native Vitebsk (Belarus). The sumptuous bouquets found throughout his oeuvre are never still lifes but rather exuberant explosions of sweetly colored blossoms that no actual vase could ever contain. Chagall's usual cast of characters includes horses, goats, chickens and fish, which, like his human figures, generally defy gravity; they hover alongside angels who appear out of nowhere and comfortably interact with clowns, jugglers, rabbis, musicians, and self-absorbed lovers. In effect his work is a conflation of memory, magic, fantasy and fable, much of it relating to his Jewish and Belarussian heritage which he left behind but never forgot when he immigrated to France after the First World War. It remained the centerpiece of his art for a lifetime.
Over the course of his career, Chagall's expressive imagery altered very little although the artist experimented widely with current pictorial styles, new techniques, and rich array of mixed media, as evident in the present work of circa 1948-52. The themes most integral to his artistic vision were intricately linked to his happy childhood. He grew up in a warm Hassidic family where his Judaism was an important facet of his daily life, and where an early interest in geometry and drawing led him to discover his path as an artist. As a young artist in the 1910s, following academic art training in St. Petersburg, Chagall lived and exhibited his work in Paris, where his Cubist-inspired paintings won him considerable notoriety. Chagall attained international recognition when the influential dealer Herwarth Walden included his work in his Erste deutsche Herbsalon in Berlin in 1913, and subsequently showed his work alongside the noted Czech expressionist Alfred Kubin at his Der Sturm gallery in March 1914. Cognizant of Chagall's profound originality, Walden then awarded him two solo exhibitions. After his successes in France and Germany, Chagall returned to Russia and Belarus in 1914 for a period of eight years which coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War. During this time he married Bella Rosenfield, saw the birth of his first child Ida, and began producing a long series of paintings of lovers, including his best-known work of this subject (Birthday of 1915, Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) in which the couple has been raised into the air through the sheer force of their love. The motif of the levitating couple as his symbol for the purity of romantic love was so powerful that it became one of the most enduring subjects of his art. In the present work, painted nearly forty years after Birthday, Chagall shows two lovers levitating beside an enormous flower arrangement: the nude figure of a beautiful woman is tenderly embraced by a clothed man who gazes at her with rapt adoration. She engages the viewer with an expression of radiance, luxuriating in his love, and, in effect, welcoming the viewer into her experience.
In 1923, after witnessing the enormous toll Germany's aggression had taken on his native Vitebsk, Marc Chagall went into exile in Paris. There, he was quickly claimed as a member of the École de Paris because his special blend of imaginative imagery was infused with an awareness of Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and other modern European trends. He was befriended by the great promoter of Picasso and Matisse, Ambrose Vollard, who supported him financially and gave him genuine artistic encouragement from 1923 until his death in 1939. During the 1920s, Chagall was invited to join the Surrealists but chose not to, wary of their deliberate involvement with the unconscious mind which was something his art did not explore. Indeed, Marc Chagall came of age as a painter during the explosion of various modernist aesthetics and philosophies, and was keenly aware of the ways in which they meshed and conflicted with his own motivations. As Jean-Michel Foray perceptively noted, "Chagall was an artist of allegory-that extended metaphor-despite the fact that the mission of modern art, from Manet onward, was to suppress allegory. What abstract artists disliked in allegory was, of course, excess-added meaning, an arbitrary significance that distorts the essence of the work. And Chagall abounds in meaning" (Jean-Michel Foray, "Chagall and Modernism," in Marc Chagall, San Francisco Museum of Art, 2003, p. 18). One may also add that he abounds in excess. As this well-wrought, richly worked gouache and pastel amply illustrates, Chagall's artistic impulses could be seductively effusive. For most of his work, the artist did not rigidly preplan his compositions but rather allowed them to tumble onto his paper and canvases piecemeal as the thoughts and images-quite often drawn from memory-suggested themselves to him.
Despite Chagall's tendency to work with a rather restricted set of imagery, it is possible, nonetheless, to date his efforts on the basis of style, compositional arrangements of motifs, and choice of media and ways of manipulating it. The present work is quite richly layered in a manner that characterizes the art he produced during the years immediately following his return to France from his World War II exile in the United States (1941-1948). The war years had been particularly difficult ones for Chagall owing both to the persecution of his people and to the fact that his beloved wife Bella had died suddenly in 1944 from a viral infection.
When, in 1948, Chagall decided to return to France, he did not return to the capital city but settled not far away in a rented house with a magnificent old abandoned garden at Orgeval near Saint-Germain-en-Laye. There, his companion Virginia McNeil gave birth to their child, David. Around the same time Chagall met the inspired Greek-born publisher, Tériade (Stratis Eleftheriades, 1889-1983). Tériade is a significant figure in the careers of Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and other major mid-twentieth-century modern painters, for he gave them the opportunity not simply to illustrate books, but to create an artistic work through the medium of the book. During the same period, Chagall became involved with printmaking, which became an important new avenue of artistic expression for him.
Chagall began visiting Tériade in 1949 at his magnificent villa with sublime gardens at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat where the latter lived for half the year. Chagall fell in love with the Cote d'Azur, the warm Mediterranean climate, and the inspirational gardens, just as both Picasso and Matisse had before him (Picasso lived in nearby Vallarius, while Matisse lived until 1948 in Vence and thereafter in Cimiez near Nice). In the Spring of 1949, while staying with Tériade, Chagall embarked on a body of large gouaches, larger than anything he had previously painted. With their rich, brushy, manipulated surfaces, the gouaches of 1949 are closely related in style and subject to the present work. In 1950 the artist and Virginia rented a house in Saint-Jean and soon moved to nearby Saint-Paul-de-Vence where they bought a villa. Chagall lived and worked there for the rest of his life. In 1952, a year after his relationship with Virginia broke up, Chagall married the Russian-born Valentina Brodsky (Vada) who became the subject of a number of romantic paintings with the lover/floral bouquet theme characterizing the present work. Published works by Chagall sharing close stylistic and iconographic affinites with Fleurs et couple include the following: Femme au bouquet of 1951, a painted ceramic plaque which depicts a bouquet of the same shape in the same container beside a bust-length female nude at lower left (see Jean Leymarie, Hommage a Marc Chagall, Grand Palais, Paris, 1969, cat. no. 358, p. 277 as collection of Mme. Ida Meyer-Chagall, Paris); a more extensive composition in oil on canvas including a larger still life, landscape, a horse, and the embracing couple flying through the air entitled Couple aux deux bouquets (see Leymaire, cat. no. 111, p. 141 as collection of Mme. Tekla Bond); and two ink drawings, Femme au bouquet of 1952 and Bouquet à la Fenêtre of 1952 (see Marc Chagall. Oeuvres sur Papier, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, cat. nos. 167 and 168, pp. 194-5 (from the collection of the artist).
The provenance of Fleurs et couple is an especially distinguished one. The earliest documented owner of the painting was Justin K. Thannhauser, son of the celebrated art dealer Heinrich Thannhauser who founded the Galerie Moderne in Munich in 1909. From an early age, Justin Thannhauser worked with his father, building an impressive program of exhibitions of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and the art of the contemporary French and German avant-gardes, particularly Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Franz Marc. The Thannhausers presented the first exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter group, including Kandinsky, in 1911. Their 1913 Picasso exhibition included 76 paintings and 38 works on paper from the Blue Period through Cubism. The close relationship between Thannhauser and Picasso lasted until the artist's death in 1973. Following World War I, Justin Thannhauser assumed the dominant role in Galerie Moderne's operations, and added a branch gallery in Lucerne, Switzerland (1919-37) and one in Berlin in 1927. Justin Thannhauser was forced to leave Germany in 1937, and reestablished his gallery in Paris. In 1939, he fled the Nazis, and settled in New York where from his home and private gallery he continued to promote and collect modern art.
In 1963 Thannhauser gave a large portion of his collection to the Guggenheim Foundation. To house the gift, a space on the second floor of the monitor building was created, where the collection was placed on permanent view. In 1978, two years following Thannhauser's death, the collection was legally transferred to the foundation. A bequest of ten additional works was received after the death of his second wife, Hilde, in 1991, and the monitor building was renamed in honor of their legacy. It is likely that Thannhauser acquired work Fleurs et couple directly from the artist, whom he knew personally.
The second recorded owner of Fleurs et couple was Jacob M. Goldschmidt, a prosperous German banker from Berlin who was one of the forces behind the first German-language version of the Encyclopedia Judaica. Like Justin Thannhauser, from whom he very likely purchased this work by Chagall directly, Goldschmidt was Jewish and left Germany in 1936 to settle in New York. Unlike Thannhauser, however, Goldschmidt's collecting passions were not confined, at least initially, to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and 20th-century Modernism, although he donated the funds which enabled the National Gallery in Berlin to purchase Van Gogh's Garden of Daubigny in 1927. While living in Europe, Goldschmidt amassed an outstanding collection of 18th-century porcelain, and also collected Old Master paintings including works by Rubens, Jordaens, Murillo, Abraham van Beijeren and others which have since become part of important museum collections worldwide. In the United States, Goldschmidt concentrated his collecting upon major European modernists, and became a patron of contemporary artists such as Chagall and Jean Dufy. Following his death his collections were sold at auction. The crème-de-la-crème-seven paintings by Cezanne, Manet, Renoir, and Van Gogh-broke all previous art world auction records at the time when they were hammered down for $2,186,800 in less than 21 minutes at Sotheby's, London on October 15, 1958. The Goldschmidt sale became legendary not simply because it was a record-smashing auction, but because it was the first time that an auction house reproduced artwork in color in a sales catalogue. The highlight of the Goldschmidt sale was Cezanne's Gar?on au Gilet Rouge, now in The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Elisabeth Hirsch, a mid-century American collector of French Modernist painting, purchased Fleurs et couple from Jacob Goldschmidt, and acquired another of Chagall gouaches from the 1950s, Vence en fleur, in 1958 following his death. Work from her collection, including paintings by Signac, Utrillo, Picasso, Rohlfs and Henri Edmund Cross, were sold at auction, together with the present painting in 1999.
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