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Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985)

Hommage au Passé ou la Ville

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Oil on canvas
71.3 x 75.9 cm (28 ¹/₈ x 29 ⁷/₈ inches)
Signed and dated lower right, Marc Chagall 944
Executed in 1944

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  • Provenance

    Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, by 1948
    Dr J.J. Mayers, New York
    Van Diemen-Lilienfeld Galleries, New York
    Feigl Gallery, New York
    The Frederick & Helen Serger Collection, New York, by 1954
    Mr & Mrs Ludwig Neugass, New York, by 1956 until at least 1965
    Private collection, Australia, by 1986
    Private Collection, UK, by 2012
    Private Collection, London, acquired from the above

  • Exhibitions

    New York, Perls Galleries, Marc Chagall, 12th March - 14th April 1956, no. 15, n.p.
    Tokyo, Musée National d'Art Occidental, Marc Chagall, October - November 1963, no. 69, p. 92 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, Musée Municipal de Kyoto, November - December 1963

  • Literature

    Raïssa Maritain, Chagall ou l'Orage Enchanté, Geneva & Paris, 1948, p. 154 (the earlier state illustrated; titled 'La Ville')
    Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Work, New York, 1964, no. 736, pp. 452 & 758 (illustrated n.p.; titled 'La Ville')
    Jean Cassou, Chagall, London, 1965, no. 115, p. 280 (illustrated fig. 115, n.p.; titled 'Homage to the Past')
    Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Marc Chagall, 1887-1985, Cologne, 2008, p. 169 (illustrated)

  • Description

    This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Comité Marc Chagall.

    Chagall’s Hommage au Passé, also recorded as The Town, is a deeply moving and personal painting. The painting shows an artist, presumably Chagall, painting at an easel on the left-hand side of the canvas. He is shown with his head turned back contemplating his memories of his Russian hometown of Vitebsk and his beloved wife Bella who died in 1944, when the painting was signed and when the mourning figure at a tombstone was added.  The painting is almost entirely rendered in different shades of blue. This nocturnal setting heightens the dream-like nature of the image, which is further reiterated by the characters suspended in mid-air and phantom apparitions.

    Although Chagall signed Hommage au Passé in 1944, it was the product of a long and drawn-out process. According to his son-in-law Franz Meyer, Chagall may have started painting it while still in France during WWII, but revisited the painting after his move to New York, and again after Bella’s death in 1944. This series of evolutions, therefore, make the painting a revealing insight into the artist’s own journey and personal experience, transforming it into a type of visual diary.

    In 1941 Chagall finally decided to escape Vichy France and he accepted an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to travel across the Atlantic. The artist lived with his family in New York before settling in Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. It was there that he may have returned to the painting of Hommage au Passé. Fond memories of his hometown of Vitebsk may have been aroused by his time spent among the Jewish community in New York. The familiar sounds of Yiddish in the streets of New York, the delis bursting with traditional Jewish food, as well as conversations with local people. 

    Hommage au Passé is dominated by a large profile of Chagall’s adored wife Bella. The artist at his canvas and his ethereal muse are locked in an ever-lasting gaze. Bella’s death in 1944 had a cataclysmic effect on Chagall and consequently his art. He later wrote: “When Bella departed from the world, all was darkness.” After September 1944, Chagall moved into his daughter’s flat in New York, during which time he abandoned painting and symbolically turned his canvases to face the wall. When Chagall resumed painting the following spring, he added the mourning figure embracing a tombstone to the top right-hand corner of the painting. In this period, Chagall also decided to paint over portraits of other figures that he had previously included in the painting. Their removal only highlights the importance of the relationship between the artist and his muse. Hommage au passé is an exceptional romantic tribute to his companion and great love of thirty years and a farewell to the woman who he met and fell in love with in his youth in Vitebsk.

Artist's Biography

The Russian-born French painter Marc Chagall was born in 1887 to a humble Jewish family in the ghetto of Vitebsk, a large town in White Russia, and passed his childhood steeped in Hasidic culture. Very early in life, Chagall was encouraged by his mother to follow his vocation after she managed to get him into an art school in St Petersburg.

After completing his studies in St Petersburg, Chagall returned to Vitebsk and became engaged to Bella Rosenfeld. In 1910 he set off for Paris which was regarded as “the Mecca of art” and as a tenant at La Ruche, Chagall was in the thick of the artistic community, living alongside both Modigliani and Soutine. During this time in Paris, Chagall’s work was tinged with the influence of Daumier, Jean-François Millet, the Nabis and the Fauves, and he was also influenced by Cubism.

Chagall returned to Vitebsk in 1914, and in 1915, he married Bella. In 1917 he was appointed provincial Commissar for Fine Art and became involved in ambitious projects for a local academy. However, two and a half years later he was forced to leave in order to escape the revolutionary dictates of Malevich.

After a time in Moscow where he worked in the Jewish theatre, then in Berlin where he studied the technique of engraving, Chagall returned to Paris in 1923. He illustrated Gogol’s Dead Souls, La Fontaine's Fables and the Bible for the publisher Vollard.

The French Surrealist Andre Breton admired the "total lyric explosion" of Chagall's pre-war painting and tried to claim that Chagall was a surrealist, although Chagall himself admitted only to having flirted with Surrealism between 1941 and 1948 during his exile in New York. Indeed, Chagall’s emblematic irrationality shook off all outside influences. His compositions were governed largely by colour. Using images from his memory he wove reality and imagination into a single legend, one that was born in Vitebsk and dreamed in Paris.

On his return to France, Chagall discovered ceramics, sculpture and stained glass. He settled in the south of France, first at Vence (1950), then in Saint-Paul-de-Vence (1966). Commissions poured in: for the Assy Baptistery in 1957, the cathedrals of Metz (1960) and Rheims (1974), the Hebrew University Medical Centre synagogue in Jerusalem (1960) and the Paris Opéra (1963). A painter-poet, celebrated by Apollinaire and Cendrars, Chagall brought back the forgotten dimension of metaphor into French formalism.

Marc Chagall