Marc Chagall, L’Écuyère (The Horse Rider)

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1887. Czar Aleksandr III was Emperor of All Russia. Mr Benz had only just patented the first motor car. The Eiffel Tower was under construction.

By the time of his death in 1985, at the age of 97, the Space Shuttle programme was in full swing and you could buy CDs in the shops. He could, in theory, have seen Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator at his local cinema. On the day he died, You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) by Dead or Alive was Number One in the UK charts. You’d think Chagall would have enjoyed the title, if not the music.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) L’Écuyère (The Horse Rider), 1949-1953. From the collection of Andrew Stirling and Simonetta Stirling-Zanda, both of whom had great fondness for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the National Galleries of Scotland 2020.

Chagall’s work spans the twentieth century, from the days of the Impressionists and the Cubists (he was on the fringes of the group in Paris just before the First World War) through Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, conceptual art and the rest. He was hugely productive as a painter and printmaker, but he also made stained glass, tapestry and much else.

He's extremely famous and would feature on many people's lists of top-ten twentieth-century artists. As such, his work is highly sought-after and very expensive, and we've never managed to acquire one.

Thanks to the Government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, which enables taxpayers to transfer important works of art into public ownership, that’s no longer the case and we are thrilled to welcome L’Écuyère (The Horse Rider) to the collection.

Andrew Stirling and Simonetta Stirling-Zanda, who lived in Edinburgh, had inherited the painting from her parents, who had in turn bought it in the 1950s. Andrew and Simonetta were regular visitors to the National Galleries of Scotland and they requested that on their deaths it should be offered in lieu of tax to us. It even comes with a very lovely credit line, requested by them and their family. It specifies their ‘fondness’ for the Gallery of Modern Art! What a great way of sharing that fondness.  

The female circus horse-rider is a recurring subject in Chagall’s work. It’s an obsession that went back to the village fairs he saw in his childhood. But it really took off in the 1920s when the art dealer Ambroise Vollard invited him to make a project based upon the circus. They visited the circus together and Vollard even let him use his private box seats. Chagall went back regularly with his ten-year-old daughter. It led to a series of gouache paintings, The Vollard Circus. He returned to the circus theme constantly thereafter.   

Chagall, who was Jewish, fled occupied France for the USA. He only returned in 1948. Our gouache was made during a five-year period from 1949–53. That isn’t a rough ‘circa’ guess at a date. Those dates are actually inscribed by him on the picture. He probably returned to it periodically over that five-year date span.  

During that period, he settled just outside St-Paul-de-Vence, a chic little town near Nice on the Côte d’Azur. Picasso and Matisse lived nearby. It was around this time that gouache became a preferred medium. It allowed him to get that amazing, pigment-heavy azure blue, which embodies the colour and intense light of the Mediterranean.

We will update this page when L’Écuyère (The Horse Rider) by Marc Chagall is on display.

By Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, 27 November 2020