Oil on canvas
56.5 x 86.8 cm
Musée national d’art moderne - Centre de Création Industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, entrusted to the Musée national Marc Chagall
In 1922, while Chagall was working in a colony for Jewish orphans, he made smaller reproductions of the large decorative panel from the State Jewish Theatre from memory. He took this painting with him when he left Russia, at the end of that year, and kept it in his studio until his exile to the United States in 1941.
It was there that, after Bella’s death, he divided the painting up into two separate works of art.
The Circus is the right-hand top third and presents the three acrobats and the cow on its back from the décor of the Jewish Theatre. But the two other characters – originally in costume – have been turned into clowns and the presence of izbas and a bright sun projects the scene outside.
The Arlequins, which formed the left-hand side of the original panel, becomes a tribute paid to the beloved wife Bella. She takes centre stage, dancing amidst memories of youth. The arrangement in oblique colour zones that characterised the décor has disappeared in favour of a snowscape populated with houses – reminiscent of Vitebsk – inlaid with peaceful domestic scenes. The role played by oil lamps within is a reminder that, just before her death, Bella finished the story of her childhood years in Vitebsk and called it Burning Lights.