Daphnis & Chloé: Chagall’s Luminous Love Story


Marc Chagall, The Trampled Flowers (c. 1956 – 1961, printed 1961), colour lithograph on wove paper, 42 x 31.9 cm. Gift of Félix Quinet, Ottawa, 1986, in memory of Joseph and Marguerite Liverant. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Daphnis & Chloé, Acc. 29763.37; Mourlot 342. © SODRAC 2015 and ADAGP 2015, Chagall ®. Photo © NGC

Color is all. When color is right, form is right. Color is everything, color is vibration like music; everything is vibration.

— Marc Chagall

It’s not surprising that Marc Chagall took four years to make his lithographic illustrations for Daphnis & Chloé, the 1961 limited-edition book published in Paris by Tériade. For each of the 42 illustrations, he used up to 25 colours — each requiring separate printing, and many created with much trial and error — as he sought to achieve just the right hue. Of course, Chagall was a supremely expressive colourist, and Daphnis & Chloé is widely considered the crowning achievement of his career as a printmaker. This spectacular series of lithographs is now on view at the National Gallery in Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé.

Previously shown at the Art Gallery of Alberta in 2013, this exhibition, organized by Sonia Del Re, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery, presents the complete set of Chagall’s coloured lithographs in sequential order. The romantic Greek fable Daphnis and Chloé, written by Longus, is set in ancient times on the island of Lesbos, where a goatherd and shepherdess must dodge all manner of dangers — wolves, rivals, tricksters, pirates, warriors, kidnappers and snowstorms — on the path to love and marriage. It is “a human love story in all its joys and tribulations,” as Longus wrote. Dramatic and sensual, the story has inspired many works of art, one of the most memorable being Maurice Ravel’s 1912 ballet score.

Chagall’s illustrations are vibrant and luminous, infused with dazzling Mediterranean colour and light, conveying both the innocence and passion of first love. The characters float in pastoral scenes filled with flowers, animals and mythological figures, on a background of meadows, mountains, and seas, in perfect harmony with nature.

Recurring colour themes act as symbolic leitmotifs for the story as it unfolds: a soft emerald green for the idyllic courting scenes in the pastures and orchards of Lesbos; hot reds, oranges and yellows for the lustier scenes; rich midnight blues for night; and clashing colours, with browns and reds, for violent battles.


Marc Chagall, Lamon's and Dryas' Dream (c. 1956–1961, printed 1961), colour lithograph on wove paper, 41.8 x 31.9 cm. Gift of Félix Quinet, Ottawa, 1986, in memory of Joseph and Marguerite Liverant. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Daphnis & Chloé, Acc. 29763.5; Mourlot 311. © SODRAC 2015 and ADAGP 2015, Chagall ®. Photo © NGC

The Bird Chase, in which Daphnis trudges through deep snow to Chloé’s house, is a marvel for its juxtaposition of desire with winter tones. On a surface almost entirely covered with cool blues, blacks and greys, Chagall manages to convey the warm romance with transparent pools of purple and green, a flock of pure white birds, and the curve of Daphnis’ body. In Temple and History of Bacchus, arcs of vibrant primary colours give the impression of Bacchanalian merriment.

Born in 1887 in Vitebsk, Russia, to a Hasidic family, Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg under Léon Bakst. He moved to Paris in 1910, where he began painting imagery that expressed his nostalgic yearning for Russian village life, with childlike imagery of flying figures, animals and onion domes. Despite periods of exile during the two world wars — first in Soviet Belarus, then in the U.S. — Chagall lived the majority of his long life in France, mostly in and around Vence, near the Mediterranean coast. 

The idea of illustrating Daphnis & Chloé was first proposed to Chagall in 1939 by the Greek-born publisher Tériade, a native of Lesbos himself, who likely felt an affinity to the tale. The artist refused at first, not wanting to compete with an existing version illustrated by Pierre Bonnard, whom he greatly admired. Following Bonnard’s death in 1952, Chagall finally agreed. That summer, and again in 1954, he travelled to Greece to get a feel for the landscape and make preparatory works. He spoke afterwards of the “brightness and lively vigour of everything Greek.”

Over the next several years, Chagall built up his drawings until he was ready to translate them into lithographs. Working closely with master printer Charles Sorlier — of the great Parisian studio, Atelier Mourlot — he developed new blues and greens. Correspondence from the artist in Vence, to Sorlier in Paris, reveals Chagall’s meticulous attention to detail; he asked Sorlier to re-work the green background on a banquet scene, and complained that an angel on a red background looked like a devil.

Today, Chagall's graphic collections stand as one of the greatest bodies of fine printmaking in the history of art. The works in this exhibition are part of a large donation made to the National Gallery by Félix Quinet in 1986. Quinet had inherited a collection of Chagall’s prints from his stepfather, Joseph Liverant, who had been an acquaintance of Chagall’s and collector of his work. In 1985, Quinet turned up at the Gallery’s former Elgin Street location to offer a gift of over 650 etchings and lithographs by Chagall, contained in 16 limited edition artist’s books that included The Bible, The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and La Fontaine’s Fables. Each book was embellished with an inscription and drawing by the artist.

Quinet’s extraordinary gift has since been the source of several popular exhibitions. It remains one of the most generous donations to the National Gallery’s Prints and Drawings Collection, and has made this museum the site of one of North America’s major collections of prints by Chagall.

Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from May 28 to September 13, 2015.

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