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Sotheby's New York to Sell Rare and Deeply Personal Marc Chagall Sketchbook
The 85-page book contains unpublished drawings in a variety of media, providing a virtual catalogue of Chagall's colorful and moving iconography. Photo: Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- A deeply personal sketchbook used by Marc Chagall for over twenty years will be one of the highlights of Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts sale in New York on 17 June 2011. The 85-page book contains unpublished drawings in a variety of media, providing a virtual catalogue of Chagall’s colorful and moving iconography. The sketchbook originally belonged to the artist’s wife, Bella Chagall, who filled the first eight pages with her Yiddish translations of French poetry. After her death in September 1944, Marc Chagall poured his grief into the sketchbook through drawings and watercolors, many of which depict him with Bella. None of these images have ever been seen by the public before. The sketchbook, which is estimated to sell for $600/900,000, will be shown at Sotheby’s Paris on 16 and 17 May before returning to New York for exhibition beginning 11 June.

This remarkably intact sketchbook was used by Marc Chagall from the 1940s to the 1960s, and includes a wide variety of subjects central to his oeuvre. The sketchbook abounds in portraits of Bella and self-portraits of the artist. These include a very beautiful ink-and wash portrait of Bella in a patterned dress with a bowl of fruit. There are two sensitive portrait heads in pencil, one with closed eyes, the other with open eyes surrounded by dark circles; both drawings possibly depict Bella's final illness. Chagall himself appears in several fine self-portraits, in one as a brightly colored satyr with palette and brushes. In another, he appears as a drinker, seated next to a bottle labeled with his own initials. In perhaps the most moving of the self-portraits, the artist with a blue head and hand on his heart is seated at his easel, contemplating a red painting of himself and Bella. The couple appear together in one drawing as artist and model, elsewhere as an elongated bridal pair; in yet another drawing they float in the sky with a crescent moon, a chicken, and a violin-playing donkey – some of the artist’s most iconic imagery.

The bountiful religious imagery in the sketchbook is both Jewish and Christian, with a series of portraits of King David being the most notable. In one very fine drawing, David, crowned and with his harp, and a fiddler in a peasant's cap flank a cluster of village huts. Sotheby’s recently sold a striking painting of King David between the two towns close to the artist’s heart – his native Vitebsk and Saint Paul-de-Vence – for $4.2 million. In another striking ink sketch, a Crucifixion rises up behind a solemn Moses, who holds the tablets of the Ten Commandments. In another drawing, an angel bearing a menorah flies across the page.

The sketchbook is equally rich in other themes that recurred throughout Chagall's long career. The artist's birthplace, Vitebsk, is a constant presence. In one drawing, a rabbi holds a Torah labeled "Vitebsk" at the scroll's edge. In an unusual and elegant red-and-black drawing, an elongated peasant woman balances a sheaf of wheat on her head as she walks what appears to be a dog on a leash. Peasants, the wooden huts and fences of the shtetl, cows and chickens all make appearances. In a revealing image, a bass player, whose instrument doubles as a bare-breasted woman, flies over the moon, while below an earthbound peasant, seen in profile, reveals the dusty wooden huts of Vitebsk lodged in his head. Small marginal sketches throughout the collection include delightful creatures such as a walking bass fiddle with a flowing mane of hair in the shape of a violin. Chagall's mysterious winged grandfather clock is depicted several times. Also of interest are several heads with transposed features, looking back to the artist's celebrated "Half-Past Three (The Poet)" (1911), now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Of the drawings of circus performers, many in blue pencil, the artist has labeled two "Comedie del art. Marc Chagall." There are also a number of Mediterranean land-and seascapes, including harbor scenes, sailboats and a figure fishing at the water’s edge. These were most likely done near the artist’s home at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the South of France, or possibly in Israel, which he visited in order to oversee several important commissions. In fact, the few existing Chagall sketchbooks seem to be related directly to specific projects, such as his important stained glass window commissions. None has the range of iconic imagery so central to the artist's work, or the emotional elements as shown here.

Intact sketchbooks such as this are extremely rare, as many have been disbound. The artist gave five to the Israel Museum but none have appeared at auction, and this is the only one known that is left in private hands.

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium

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