Marc Chagall’s love affair with Paris


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"Le Visage Bleu," a tapestry design by Marc Chagall, based on the artist's oil painting, "Le Visage Bleu" (1967, 97 x 130cm). The work sold March 23, 2006 for $79,682 (USD). Photo courtesy Sotheby's.

Marc ChagallThe Paris discovered by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) when he arrived by train in 1910 was still the city of the art world’s dreams. It was a metropolis of broad boulevards and crooked cobbled alleys lined with ateliers and cafes where Picasso might be found sitting with Braque. Supported only by a modest grant from a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament, Chagall was able to subsist in a city where credit was extended to artists as a matter of course, where meals could sometimes be paid for in sketches and intellectuals could occupy a corner table for an entire afternoon of animated discussion for the price of a cup of coffee.

“I brought my subjects from Russia and Paris gave them their light,” Chagall once said. Regardless of how far he traveled and which modernist influences he absorbed, the artist remained rooted in memories of his birthplace, Vitebsk, a provincial city now located in the post-Soviet Republic of Belarus. It was not entirely an easy journey. Reared in the mystical Jewish Hasidic sect, which encouraged music and dance while taking the Mosaic injunction against graven images literally, Chagall was rejected by some members of his own family for the heresy of being a painter. However, his mother supported him, sending him to St. Petersburg where he first gained attention. But it was under the sway of the modern movements out of Paris, the Cubists and Surrealists, that Chagall gave form to his dreams of a timeless Russia of farms and endless horizons capped with the onion-domed towers of the country’s Eastern Orthodox churches.

His developing style portrayed dancing fiddlers and whimsical characters floating above dream-like groundless landscapes, blending elements of folk culture and Cubism into poetic narratives of his heritage. Returning to Russia in 1914, he married his fiance from Vitebsk, which inspired his enduring signature motif of a young couple posed in embrace, an image frequently found in his paintings throughout his life’s work. By the time of Russia’s October Revolution (1917) he was an artist of note and as an “aesthetic arm of the revolution,” accepted a job as commissar of arts for Vitebsk. In 1923 he returned to France where he formed a business collaboration with the successful art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. He began creating etchings for a series of books, including the Bible, commissioned by Vollard in 1930.  As part of his research, he traveled to Palestine for several months to explore the Holy Land. He completed 66 etchings by 1939, when interrupted by the war, he left for the United States. Returning to France after the war he completed the series in 1956.

Chagall spent much of his creative life in France, working in a variety of art forms: paintings, ceramics, tapestries, works on paper, book illustrations, theater sets and costumes, murals and stained-glass.

His ceramics are worth noting as they were not produced into editions and appear less frequently at auction. He began working in the craft in 1950, while continuing with his painting and prints. Like his other work, his themes on ceramic included biblical, mythical, floral, animals and circus imagery and impressions of Paris. In 1951, he created 75 individual pieces of tableware for his daughter’s wedding. Flowers, happy couples and nudes were among the colorful motifs painted on ceramic. Auction results for Chagall’s ceramics listed, (a mere 25 lots from 1997-Feb., 2011,)  range from $2,500 for a 6-inch painted and glazed bowl to $266,000 for a 16 by 13 inch platter.

Chagall’s interest in tapestry came about in the 1960s, when the State of Israel commissioned three tapestries for the Knesset (Parliament).  They have never been reproduced or offered for sale. He continued to work in the medium and in collaboration with Yvette Cauquil-Prince, a master craftswoman who worked with other artists, including Picasso, creating over 30 tapestries. The Chagall Estate allowed Cauquil-Prince to continue working with Chagall’s designs after his death and her Chagall tapestries are the only authorized tapestries available for sale. Composition (inspired by Chagall’s 1967 oil “Le Visage Bleu,” sold at Sotheby’s (London) in 2006 for $66,413 (hammer). His signature is woven in the fabric and is signed on the verso. Cauquil-Prince’s collaboration is noted in the auction sale catalog.

Throughout his career, Chagall worked the print medium, producing lithographs and numerous etchings. During his final decades, he worked with the well-known printer Fernand Mourlot and produced over 1000 limited edition lithographs, which are aggressively collected today. Throughout the recent recession, the print market had softened, with many 20th century artist’s works bringing lower returns at auction. Chagall’s numbers have remained high and continue to climb.

A recent price analysis published by Thierry Ehrmann‘s Artprice (France) reflects Chagall’s popularity in print sales today. The Artprice study asserts that the print market is affordable with 60 percnet of lots selling for under $1,000 and only 11 percent fetching over $5,000. The market’s core is dominated by Modern artists, of which Chagall ranked number nine in the top ten and is the second most frequent sold artist at auction, behind Picasso. His multiples account for over 85 percent of the total volume of sales. Artprice concludes that the price index for Chagall’s sales rose by almost 80 percent between January 2000 and the end of 2007. Artprice collects auction data and has become a go-to resource for sales reference.

In the market for a Chagall lithograph? Many collectors have added Chagall to their potfolio and the high returns aren’t only realized in the major auction houses. Treadway-Toomey (Oak Park, Illinois) sold Chagall’s 1969 litho, “The Red Bouquet,” at their recent March sale for $15,000 (hammer). An unsigned poster from the Metropolitan Opera,  Mozart – Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), brought in $2,383 (hammer) in Vienna in January 2011. But bargains can still be found. Bonham’s February sale in London included two unsigned Chagall book plates,  “Moses, From the Bible” (1956) and “Derriere Le Mirroir” (1969), which sold for $128 and $353, respectively (hammer). Du Mouchelles (Detroit) January sale featured five lithographs selling from $700 – $3,000.

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.

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