Marc Chagall - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 14, 2022 | Phillips
  • "These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions […] with them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colours and make-up, I can dream of painting new psychic distortions."
    —Marc Chagall

    Marc Chagall long held a fascination for the circus stemming from his childhood in Vitebsk, Russia, where travelling bands of acrobats would perform for gathered crowds on the streets. Likely the young Chagall’s first encounter with modes of performance and artistic display as eminent art historian Franz Meyer has suggested, he was bewitched by these colourful visions, one of his earliest paintings, Village Fair from 1908 incorporating the theme with swinging acrobats and a big top visible in the background. Returning to the motif throughout his working life, its relevance for the artist went far beyond formal or thematic concerns alone, satisfying instead ‘a fundamental Chagallesque conception of art […] just like colour and form, the circus act is not a copy but a representation, a reflection of life in its totality.’i

    Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus, 1950, Tate Gallery, London
    Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus, 1950, Tate, London. Image: © Tate


    Balancing cool blues with vibrant, electric shocks of green, Deux profils verts au cirque  is a particularly energetic depiction of this beloved subject, combining successive moments into a single, simultaneous vision. In its brilliant palette and compositional dynamism, the present work returns us to earlier paintings including The Blue Circus, now held in the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery, London. A consistent source of inspiration, for Chagall the circus represented something of the Carnivalesque, ‘a timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of a great art’.ii In Paris, where Chagall spent the majority of the 1920s and 30s, he would regularly accompany his art dealer Ambroise Vollard to the circus, enthralled by the spectacle laid before him and sketching details of the performers and shows incessantly. As well as his famed Cirque Vollard series of 19 gouaches, such experiences would lead to major compositions such as the artist’s Moscow murals and the monumental Revolution, where fascism and the dark political realities of the 1930s are brought into high relief through the use of compositional strategies first worked out in his circus paintings.
    "I adore the theatre and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love. I will give all my soul to prove this once more."
    —Marc Chagall
    The circus would return as a theme in Chagall’s work from 1956 onwards, when having attended the shoot of a film about the Cirque d'Hiver in Vence, the artist set about recreating his circus motifs using the warm, Mediterranean colours of his home in the South of France. Executed in 1966, Deux profils verts au cirque originates in this later period of the artist’s career, encapsulating Chagall’s unwavering enthusiasm for the circus and its thrilling creative energies.
    In the present work, daring endeavour and flamboyant, balletic stunts are accented by bold, bright colours, the unstructured composition lending pace and jeopardy to the unfolding scene. Using a mixture of gouache, pastel, pen and ink and collage in a high-key palette, Chagall powerfully combines a sense of the immediate and the fantastical.  Vibrant passages of blues, vivid greens, and warmer pink tones animate the composition, lending definition to individual performers and their gravity-defying feats while simultaneously accentuating the blurring of the boundaries between the body and its extension in space, of human and animal, and of spectator to performer.


    Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, The National Gallery, London
CAPTION: Detail of the present work
    Left: Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, The National Gallery, London. Image: Bridgeman Images
    Right: Detail of the present work


    Acrobats balance on beasts surrounded by tiers of spectators, and further performers – both human and animal, the latter painted in the same vibrant colours as the former – hover above the circus ring, acting simultaneously as subjects of the work as well as onlookers to the action below. The ring is a fluid, ill-defined space where the hint of a regular, circular form is subverted by the overspilling and overlapping whorls of colour, themselves punctuated by zig-zagging vectors suggesting speed and agility. All eyes in the circus are drawn to the pivoting equestrienne, her body perfectly poised as she balances on one leg atop her steed, the latter bearing resemblance to neolithic equine art. The dashing, derring-do moves of such écuyères inspired a number of other avant-garde artists over the years such as Georges Seurat and Edgar Degas, both of whom painted various stages of the fast-paced act in their studies of the circus.


    In his work, Chagall consistently sought to create fantasy worlds in which anything was possible. Deux profils verts au cirque is exemplary of the bubbling, whirlwind life of the circus, of the thrilling demonstration of artistry in the face of utmost danger, and is testament to the great legacy of Chagall’s own work, which was to see in unison the theatrical and the painterly, ‘a marriage of love’ to which Chagall dedicated his artistic energies. For him, the circus stage was the ideal setting for dreamlike, extraordinary acts: clowns, lovers, horses and trapeze artists floating in their own metaphysical spaces, defying - like the circus itself - the formal laws of composition.


    i Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, Life and Work, New York, 1963, p. 554-6. 
    ii Marc Chagall, quoted in Susan Compton, Chagall, (exh. cat.), London, 1985, p. 14.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the artist
      Galerie Kornfeld, Bern, 20 June 2014, lot 20
      Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)
      Sotheby's, London, 2 March 2017, lot 149
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Property from a Distinguished Private European Collection


Deux profils verts au cirque

stamped ‘Chagall’ lower right
gouache, pastel, ink and collage on paper
50.9 x 32.8 cm (20 x 12 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1966, the work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Comité Marc Chagall and is recorded under no. 2014083.

Full Cataloguing

£350,000 - 450,000 ‡♠

Sold for £340,200

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 14 October 2022