Marc Chagall is well known for his paintings, but fewer people may be aware of this series of etchings. Chagall began making etchings in 1921. After moving to Paris soon after, Ambroise Vollard attempted to commission a set of etchings for a deluxe “livre de peintre”. Chagall was open to the commission but suggested Gogol’s Dead Souls (Les Ames Mortes) as an alternative text.
In the end, Chagall created 96 etchings to illustrate the novel between 1923 and 1927. It may not be his most famous work, but I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of the original etchings in Rome a number of years ago, and found the freedom in them to be striking. As Franz Meyer said in Marc Chagall: His Graphic Work:
“This entire world of stupidity, malice, and selfishness is rendered transparent through humor…. It is a liberating force which discloses the deep stream of exuberant life behind all the figures in the novel. Everywhere, running through all the comical elements, and borne along by a sort of inner joyfulness, there appears the fantastic, rich, inexhaustible reality of Russian life.”
The etchings for the Dead Souls, executed between 1923 and 1927 and printed in 1927, were stored in Ambroise Vollard’s warehouse. But his untimely death, and Chagall’s flight from German-occupied France kept them from being published until 1950 when an edition of 285 was produced, each signed by the artist. To this day the series remains a great modern masterpiece, highly sought after by collectors. For me, they embody the freedom and tactile beauty of the all-but-lost art of intaglio etching.