Marc Chagall - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “Flowers? I can’t watch them die… I put them into my canvases and so they live a little longer”i
    —Marc Chagall

    Marc Chagall's Fleurs chez Bella, translated as "Flowers in Bella's Room," is an enchanting interior scene painted between 1935 and 1938, a period of intense personal happiness and artistic innovation for the artist. This work captures an idyllic moment with his beloved wife, Bella, in their Paris apartment during the relatively peaceful years before World War II. The painting is a lyrical celebration of love, featuring a rich tapestry of Chagall's personal iconography—intertwined lovers, vibrant flowers, an open window, and an imagined view of Vitebsk, his hometown in Russia. These elements fuse the everyday with the fantastical, creating a narrative tableau that encapsulates domestic bliss and nostalgic reminiscence against the backdrop of the pre-war 1930s. Fleurs chez Bella stands as a vivid testament to Chagall’s ability to intertwine memory, emotion, and place, offering a glimpse into his emotional landscape during these lighter years.


    Fleurs chez Bella has a distinguished provenance, residing in the collections of some of the most prominent American collectors of Modern art over the past century. The painting was originally owned by Samuel Maslon, a Minneapolis lawyer, who formed an impressive collection of modern paintings and sculptures over a period of 50 years. Mr. Maslon donated numerous works to esteemed institutions, including his gift of the first painting by Amedeo Modigliani to enter the Minneapolis Institute of Art's collection: The Little Servant Girl, c. 1916.  In 1954, Harry and Ruth Bakwin acquired the painting, and it remained in the care of their family for almost 70 years. The Drs. Bakwin, both esteemed pediatricians, were prolific collectors who made their foray into the art world shortly after their marriage in Paris in 1925. They amassed a remarkable collection that highlighted the rich tapestry of School of Paris artists, including luminaries such as Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. Their collection began with the purchase of a Renoir oil painting in Paris and grew to encompass seminal works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Modigliani, and Picasso. This collection, often enriched during their annual European trips with their four children, reflected not just their aesthetic appreciation but also their deep engagement with the transformative art movements of the early twentieth century. Beyond their artistic legacy, Harry Bakwin was the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1955–56 and co-authored influential pediatric texts, while Ruth Bakwin held prestigious positions such as the director of pediatrics at the New York Infirmary and was an heir to the Chicago meatpacking fortunes of the Armour and Swift families.


    Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits, 1888-1890. Previously in the collection of Drs. Harry and Ruth Bakwin, New York, Bought by American businessman Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr. and sold for $59,295,000 USD through Christie’s New York as part of the historic grouping Newhouse: Masterpieces from the Collection of S.I. Newhouse in 2019. Image: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images


    Displayed in their Manhattan townhouse, artworks like Fleurs chez Bella were integral to the Bakwins' intellectual and cultural milieu, extending an open invitation to conversations about art and life. By 1929, the couple had amassed a collection prominent enough to be included in the Museum of Modern Art's first New York exhibition. This legacy of art and enthusiasm was inherited by their children, fostering a familial tradition steeped in appreciation for the arts. Their son Edward once reflected on the collection's impact, noting, "Each piece has a story, not just of the art but of our family's journey and the eras they encompassed."ii Describing the story of how his parents first embarked on their collecting journey, favoring what was at the time radical and unpopular art, Edward explained "My parents were doing postgraduate medical work in Vienna and Berlin," humorously adding that, "The classes were in the morning, and people drank beer in the afternoon. My parents weren't beer drinkers, so they took up looking at art instead."iii

    “To see the world through bouquets! Huge, monstrous bouquets in ringing profusion, haunting brilliance. Were we to see [Chagall] only through these abundances gathered at random from gardens... and naturally balanced, we could wish for no more precious joy!”iv
    —Jacob Baal-Teshuva

    At the heart of Fleurs chez Bella is a vibrant explosion of red roses—a traditional subject Chagall approached with an emotional intensity that suggests both a celebration of natural beauty and a deeper, symbolic significance. As he reflected upon his time in France, these flowers became a visual metaphor for the country itself, echoing James Johnson Sweeney's observation of Chagall's association of bouquets with the French landscape—a symbol of the peace and wonder that France represented to him. Chagall began incorporating floral still lifes into his art in the mid-1920s after moving back to France from Russia. His renewed appreciation for nature, particularly flowers, soon became a central theme in his works. Chagall described his floral works as "exercises in the equation of color and light," a theme vividly captured in Fleurs chez Bella.v This painting exemplifies how Chagall translated the luminous colors of his environment into his unique, often dreamlike artistic language. Françoise Gilot, an artist and former lover of Pablo Picasso, recounted Picasso's praise: "When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is... there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has."vi


    Chagall’s biographer (and son-in-law), Franz Meyer, described the "new natural sensuousness of Chagall’s art" during this period, attributing it to positive developments in his personal life—such as his acquisition of French citizenship, improved financial stability, and relocation in 1936 to a new studio in Paris where he "felt particularly at ease."vii In his essay for the 1963 catalogue raisonné, Meyer remarked on the influence of Chagall's new studio environment on his artwork, singling out the serene ambiance of Fleur chez Bella as a demonstration of the artist’s change in mood. He noted that, "The cool haze that flows in from the blue distance surrounds everything in the room—the roses with their dark bushy foliage, the tables, and chairs."viii


    In Chagall's inclusion of the lush bouquet of red roses there is an assertion of defiance against the encroaching darkness of world events. The flowers' vibrancy and life stand as an affirmation of beauty and vitality amidst a backdrop of fear and uncertainty. They are a life force, symbolizing perhaps the resilience of the human spirit, and a hope that love and art might endure despite the shadows cast by the impending conflict. As Elisabeth Pacoud-Rème observed, “From 1923 to 1935, Chagall experienced a period of happy acclimatization, the effects of which shine through his work. He painted numerous bouquets, exuberant and luminous, showing through this, a taste for nature that in his maturity he would also express through landscape […]. The bouquets of this period, veritable exercises in painting, are not however exempt from the symbolism often associated with this genre or allusions to the passage of time.”ix


    Marc Chagall, Lovers among Lilacs, 1930. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 


    Marc Chagall's time in interwar Paris was marked by artistic innovation and emotional complexity, framed by the aftermath of World War I and the growing tensions before World War II. Fleurs chez Bella encapsulates this period, a delicate balance of memories of the past and looming threats of the future. As Paris thrived as the epicenter of radical artistic movements, Chagall, a Jewish artist, absorbed its innovative spirit while also navigating the growing anti-Semitism and political turmoil that colored his work and perceptions. The present painting can be seen as a deeply personal reflection on Chagall's experience of this uncertain time. The interior scene, bathed in a gentle light, is a sanctuary from the growing tumult of the outside world. The intimate portrayal of Chagall with Bella suggests a search for solace in the private realm, a haven where the love and beauty found in their relationship offer a counterpoint to the instability and insecurity that characterized the interwar years. The theme of embracing lovers surrounded by colorful bouquets is one Chagall consistently returned to throughout the years, with Fleurs chez Bella representing an early example of this motif, along with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Lovers among Lilacs, 1930. In these paintings, Chagall creates a safe haven for himself and Bella. The pseudo self-portrait of the couple shelters them within Chagall’s narrative universe, ensuring that they might always, in some way, remain in Paris together and at ease on a sunny afternoon.


    The window looking out onto Vitebsk, though painted from Paris, symbolizes a past that was both idyllic and irretrievable, a pre-war world that Chagall knew he could never return to in the same way. This serves as a visual metaphor for the artist's feelings of displacement and longing for a simpler time. It speaks to the universal experience of exile and the artist's concerns about the future, especially as dark clouds loom on the horizon, overshadowing this idyllic moment. Additionally, Chagall's reference to the Nabis and their integration of art into everyday life through the rendering of the tablecloth textile and the background painting speaks to a desire to hold onto cultural and artistic legacies during times of great change. It reflects a continuity with the past, maintaining a thread of artistic heritage even as the future was fraught with unpredictability.


    Fleurs chez Bella represents a melding of time and place, of memory and hope, where the personal becomes universal. It is a snapshot of an artist who finds himself at a crossroads, looking back to the traditions and memories that shaped him, standing in a present that is vibrant yet uncertain, and facing a future that is ominous and unknown. It is a canvas on which Chagall has projected his love, his fears, his past, and his anticipations, all intertwined in the quiet intimacy of a room filled with flowers.



    iiEdward Bakwin, quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, “Parting with the Family van Gogh,” The New York Times, April 22 2006, online.


    iv"Chagall and Romantic Painting", in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 136.

    vMarc Chagall, quoted in Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, New York, 1964, p. 369.

    viFrancoise Gilot, quoted in Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 282.

    viiFranz Meyer, Marc Chagall. Life and Work, New York, 1963, pp. 422.


    ixElisabeth Pacoud-Rème, Chagall entre guerre et paix, Exh. Cat., Paris, 2013, p. 88, translated from French

    • Provenance

      Sam H. Maslon, Minneapolis
      M. Knoedler & Co. Inc., New York (acquired from the above)
      The Drs. Bakwin, New York (acquired from the above on November 26, 1954)
      Thence by descent to the present owners

    • Exhibited

      New York, Wildenstein & Co. Inc., An Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture For the Benefit of the Association for Mentally Ill Children in Manhattan, Inc. The Dr. and Mrs. Harry Bakwin Collection, October 4–November 4, 1967, no. 9, pp. 17, 54 (illustrated, p. 17; titled Fleurs dans un Vase; dated 1942)

    • Literature

      Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall. Life and Work, New York, 1963, no. 633, pp. 422, 756 (illustrated, n.p.)

Property from the Bakwin Family Collection


Fleurs chez Bella

signed “Chagall Marc” lower left
oil and pencil on canvasboard
21 5/8 x 18 7/8 in. (54.9 x 48.1 cm)
Executed in 1935-1938.

The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by the Comité Chagall.

Full Cataloguing

$800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for $863,600

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024