In 1948, Marc Chagall was asked to produce a set of lithographs for Pantheon Books’ publication of Four Tales from the Arabian Nights. The project represents the artist’s first foray into lithography, and is considered the finest example of the medium printed in the United States before 1950. It received the graphic prize in the 1948 Venice Biennale. The portfolio was released in a regular edition of 90, containing 12 plates, and a deluxe edition of 11, which includes a thirteenth plate.
A deluxe set, passed down through the publisher’s family, will be offered y for the first time in our March 2 auction of 19th & 20th Century Prints & Drawings. Each of the color lithographs is signed, annotated and inscribed “G/8” in pencil in the lower margin.
Of the 13 plates, 11 correspond to lines from the Tales. The full text in English is included with the portfolio, here summarized to accompany each plate:
Lot 551: Marc Chagall, Four Tales from the Arabian Nights, complete deluxe edition of 13 color lithographs, New York, 1948. Estimate $250,000 to $350,000.
Kamar Al-Zaman and the Jeweller’s Wife
When Kamar Al-Zaman turns 15, he meets a dervish who tells him of an incredible procession of unveiled women through a nearby abandoned town.
They were in forty pairs, thus numbering fourscore and in their midst a young lady, riding a horse, let her face unveiled…
Kamar falls in love with the idea of the the leader of the procession, a lady on horseback who beheaded a man who spied on her. Outfitted with jewels, Kamar sets out for the village the dervish had named. Soon the procession of unveiled women winds through the streets. He later asks a barber about the practice, and the barber’s wife tells Kamar that the woman was the wife of the best jeweller in the town. The king had given the man one wish in exchange for piercing his finest gemstone, and the jeweller had wished that once a week his wife could ride through the empty town with her maids unveiled. The barber and his wife hatch a plan to allow Kamar to meet the woman through an elaborate ruse.
Then he spent the night with her embracing and clipping…
The wife falls in love with Kamar and concocts a plan to steal all of her husband’s wealth and abscond with him back to his father. They do so, but Kamar’s father forbids him to marry her. The jeweller finds her and kills her, and falls in love with Kamar’s sister. The past is forgiven and both men live long, healthy lives.
Julnar the Sea-Born and Her Son King Badr Basim of Persia
A king is offered a beautiful slave girl named Julnar who refuses to speak. Over time, he learns that her parents were mer-people and she is from the sea.
Disrobing her with his own hand, the King looked upon her body and saw it as if it were a silvern ingot…
Julnar tells the king how she came from the sea to the land, and how she came to be sold to him. He falls in love with her and marries her.
So I came forth of the Sea and sat down on the edge of an island in the moonshine…
Julnar gives birth to a son, Badr, who eventually becomes the king. Badr hears of a woman named Jaurahah whose beauty surpasses all others, and he seeks her hand in marriage. Her father rejects each of her suitors and she runs away to an island and hides in a tree. She meets Badr and pretends to fall in love with him, but then she turns him into a bird. Badr is captured and sold as a bird to a merchant on another island, the land of the evil Queen Lab.
So saying, she came down from the tree and drawing near him strained him to her bosom…
Badr is rescued when he is recognized to be a man trapped in the form of a bird. When he returns to the mainland, he vows vengeance on Queen Lab. He takes her hostage and buys a mule on which to carry her, but the mule turns out to be the queen’s mother, who is an ifrit (genie), disguised as a donkey. She takes her daughter and the king back to the queen’s island.
Then the old woman mounted on the Ifrit’s back, taking her daughter behind her, and the Ifrit flew off with them…
He returns home and his mother plans a wedding for him, but nothing can console him until he has Juaharah as a wife. Again he goes to her father, who caught her by this time, and now he cannot refuse a king who has endured so much for his daughter. They are married and live a long life together.
Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman
Abdullah the fisherman was not catching enough fish to feed his family. At his wife’s bidding, he casts his net one last time and to his surprise, finds a merman in the net.
When Abdullah got the net ashore, he saw a man in it and he fled from him, but the man called out to him from within the net…
The merman, whose name is also Abdullah, offers Abdullah the fisherman precious gemstones. The fisherman goes into town and trades the jewels for food and goods of every description. Every few days he goes back to the sea and Adbullah the merman gives him more jewels.
Meanwhile, the queen’s jewels have been stolen. Her guards quickly hear about the lowly fisherman who has recently been flashing extravagant jewels around the marketplace. Abdullah is arrested, but the queen recognizes that he does not have her jewels.
Abdullah is offered a princess as a bride and he and his family live well together. He remains close friends with Abdullah the merman and the two speak frequently. Abdullah the fisherman decides it is time for him to make the hajj to Mecca. As Abdullah the merman cannot come with him across the land, he invites the fisherman to his castle under the sea to be able to represent him when he reaches the Kaaba Stone.
Abdullah discovered before him and on his right and left mountains of water and solaced himself by gazing thereon and on the various sort of fish. Some of them favoured buffaloes, others oxen and others dogs and yet others human beings…
Abdullah the merman puts a special powder on Abdullah the fisherman to allow him to breathe under water. Under the sea he is greeted by thousands of strange and wonderful creatures celebrating. The fisherman asks, “What is the occasion? Why the festivities?” to which the merman replies that someone important has just died.
“How strange,” said the fisherman, “When a man dies on the land we mourn and weep, it is not a joyous occasion but a sad one.”
The merman looks at Abdullah and says he must leave immediately. “I cannot be host to a guest who does not rejoice in returning gifts to Allah.”
The Ebony Horse
Three wise men came before a king and offered him fantastic gifts in exchange for his three daughters’ hands in marriage. The first offered a golden trumpet that would protect the city; the king is pleased and gives him one daughter. The second offers a mechanical peacock that will screech at the top of every hour; again the king is pleased and gives him a daughter. The third offers a mechanical horse made of ebony and ivory that can fly and take its rider wherever he wants to go. Before the king can speak, his son leaps onto the horse and is whisked away above the city.
Now the king loved science and geometry and one festival day as he sat on his kingly throne there came in to him three wise men.
The prince flies to another city where a beautiful princess is sequestered with her maids. The king finds the prince wooing her and the prince tells the king to meet him in combat with his full army the following day. As they lift their spears to him, he rises into the air on his ebony horse and soars back to his own kingdom. However, he misses the princess and the following night flies back to her palace on his horse to take her away.
He went up to the couch and found a young lady asleep, chemised with her hair as she were the full moon rising over the eastern horizon…
Back in his own palace, the prince hides the princess in a garden courtyard to prepare for her grand entrance. When he returns to visit her, he finds she is gone, as is the ebony horse. The prince immediately suspects the wise man who invented the horse. Through the tales of traveling merchants, the prince learns that the princess has been taken to Persia and has gone mad with sorrow.
Mounting the ebony horse he took her up behind him and made her fast to himself, binding her with strong bonds; after which he turned the shoulder-pin of ascent, and the horse rose with him into the air…
He follows her to Persia where he pretends to be a doctor. He “heals” the princess, finds the ebony horse, and together they return to the prince’s kingdom.
Marc Chagall, Four Tales from the Arabian Nights, complete deluxe edition of 13 color lithographs, New York, 1948. Estimate $250,000 to $350,000.
The thirteenth plate does not illustrate a specific tale. Rather, it depicts Scheherazade telling stories to the King in bed, under the outstretched wings of a bird.