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Hommage au Passé ou la Ville by Marc Chagall

Chagall’s Hommage au Passé, also known as The Town, is a deeply moving and personal painting. The painting shows Chagall himself, painting at an easel on the left-hand side of the canvas. He is shown with his head turned back contemplating the memories of his hometown of Russian Vitebsk and his beloved wife Bella. 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. Chagall’s blue, nocturnal paintings, such as the present work, are among his most prized and sought-after canvases.

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 decided to paint over the portraits of other figures that he had previously included in the painting, making the artist and his wife the main subjects. By isolating Bella’s profile, Chagall highlights how his wife was his muse and a constant source of inspiration. Indeed, Hommage au Passé is a romantic tribute to his companion and great love of thirty years.

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. In 1941 Chagall escaped Vichy France and accepted an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to travel across the Atlantic. It is likely he revisited the painting after his move to New York, and again after Bella’s death in 1944. The artist lived with his family in New York before settling upstate in Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks. Fond memories of his hometown in Vitebsk – where Chagall met his great love Bella during his youth - may have been invoked by his time spent with the Russian Jewish community in New York. The familiar sound of Yiddish and delis filled with traditional Jewish food may have prompted him to depict Vitebsk in the present work. This series of evolutions, therefore, make the painting a revealing insight into the artist’s own journey and personal experience, transforming it into a sort of visual diary.

The painting’s striking colours, the history and emotion that it contains, and the heart-warming centrality of his wife and muse, make this Chagall painting a truly remarkable work.

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