Ahaseurus Sends Vashti Away (Assuérus Chasse Vashti) by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall

Ahaseurus Sends Vashti Away (Assuérus Chasse Vashti), 1960, Lithograph, 525 x 382 mm, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France, MBMC 435, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Photo: Gérard Blot, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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His Rage Grew Hot

Commentary by

In this lithograph the king, accompanied by his courtiers, towers over Vashti from his throne at the top of a flight of stairs. Vashti, at the lower right, turns away and appears to withdraw into herself.

The biblical text is unclear about the fate of Vashti, and she disappears never to be heard of again. Here, at the foot of the stairs, she looks as though she has been banished to a dark, stony dungeon.

A strong diagonal divides the composition from the lower left to the upper right, separating Vashti from the king and his council. Could it represent collapsing columns in the palace, as Vashti’s ‘disobedience’ is presented not merely as a personal affront to Ahasuerus, but as threatening the stability of his vast kingdom? In this tale, political power and sexual relations are closely interwoven.

Strong emotion is often evoked through colour in Marc Chagall’s work. Vashti, perhaps pensive in expression, adopts a pose that is frequently to be seen in Chagall’s depiction of the prophets—for example the lithographs, Pleurs de Jérémie (1956), David et Bethsabée (1956), Le prophète et l’ange (1979). Her body curves inwards on itself as she contemplates her situation. Unlike the king, Vashti is not accompanied by an entourage of supporters; she is alone and must rely on her own resources to face the consequences of her decision. She draws her arms around her protectively, crossing them asymmetrically over her body to cover herself, adopting the classical ‘Venus Pudica’ pose (as seen in Masaccio’s c.1425 fresco of Eve leaving the Garden of Eden in shame). Vashti retreats from the glare of the men, and yet she seems unable to escape their gaze altogether. Their eyes, like the viewer’s, follow her—they are evoked in the pattern on her dress.

Ahasuerus is aflame with rage, a burning tower in the inky-blue darkness, his elaborate and highly decorated red gown a reflection of both his heightened emotional state and his regal status.

As his drunkenness turns to outrage, the text describes the king turning to his sages who knew the laws. Here, these figures, diminutive beside their megalomaniac king, reflect his rage in their flushed faces as they look down on Vashti with contempt.