Marc Chagall (July 1887 – 2March 1985), was a Belorussian-French artist associated with several major artistic styles and one of the most successful artists of the 20th century. He was an early modernist, and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.
Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as 'the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.' According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be 'the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists.' For decades, he 'had also been respected as the world's preeminent Jewish artist.' Using the medium of stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, windows for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.
Before World War I, he traveled between St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During this period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his idea of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. He spent the wartime years in Soviet Belarus, becoming one of the country's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avante-garde, initiating the Vitebsk Arts College before leaving again for Paris during 1922.
He had two basic reputations, writes Lewis: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism's 'golden age' in Paris, where 'he synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, and the influence of Fauvism gave rise to Surrealism.' Yet throughout these phases of his style 'he remained most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk.' 'When Matisse dies,' Pablo Picasso remarked during the 1950s, 'Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.'
Marc Chagall, born Moishe Shagal, was born in Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk (Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire) in 1887. At the time of his birth, Vitebsk's population was about 66,000, with half the population being Jewish. A picturesque city of churches and synagogues, it was called 'Russian Toledo', after a cosmopolitan city of the former Spanish Empire. As the city was built mostly of wood, little of it survived years of occupation and destruction during World War II.
Chagall was the eldest of nine children. The family name, Shagal, is a variant of the name Segal, which in a Jewish community was usually possessed by a Levitic family. His father, Khatskl (Zakhar) Shagal, was employed by a herring merchant, and his mother, Feige-Ite, sold groceries from their home. His father worked hard, carrying heavy barrels but earning only 20 roubles each month. Chagall would later include fish motifs 'out of respect for his father', writes Chagall biographer, Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Chagall wrote of these early years:
Day after day, winter and summer, at six o'clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father's lot... There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands.
One of the main sources of income of the Jewish population of the town was from the manufacture of clothing that was sold throughout Russia. They also made furniture and various agricultural tools. From the late 18th century to the First World War, the Russian government confined Jews to living within the Pale of Settlement, which included modern Ukrainia, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltic states. This caused the creation of Jewish market-villages (shtetls) throughout today's Eastern Europe, with their own markets, schools, hospitals, and other community institutions.
Most of what is known about Chagall's early life has come from his autobiography, My Life. In it, he described the major influence that the culture of Hasidic Judaism had on his life as an artist. Vitebsk itself had been a center of that culture dating from the 1730s with its teachings derived from the Kabbalah. Goodman describes the links and sources of his art to his early home:
Chagall's art can be understood as the response to a situation that has long marked the history of Russian Jews. Though they were cultural innovators who made important contributions to the broader society, Jews were considered outsiders in a frequently hostile society... Chagall himself was born of a family steeped in religious life; his parents were observant Hasidic Jews who found spiritual satisfaction in a life defined by their faith and organized by prayer.
In Russia at that time, Jewish children were not allowed to attend regular Russian schools or universities. Their movement within the city was also restricted. Chagall therefore received his primary education at the local Jewish religious school, where he studied Hebrew and the Bible. At the age of 13, his mother tried to enroll him in a Russian high school, and he recalled, 'But in that school, they don't take Jews. Without a moment's hesitation, my courageous mother walks up to a professor.' She offered the headmaster 50 roubles to let him attend, which he accepted.Portrait of Chagall by Yehuda (Yuri) Pen, his first art teacher in Vitebsk
A beginning of his artistic life came when he first noticed a fellow student drawing. Baal-Teshuva writes that for the young Chagall, watching someone draw 'was like a vision, a revelation in black and white.' Chagall would say later how there was not any art of any kind in his family's home and the concept was totally alien to him. When Chagall asked the schoolmate how he learned to draw, his friend replied, 'Go and find a book in the library, idiot, choose any picture you like, and just copy it.' He soon began copying images from books and found the experience so rewarding he then decided he wanted to become an artist.
He eventually confided to his mother, 'I want to be a painter', although she could not understand his sudden interest in art or why he would choose a vocation that 'seemed so impractical', writes Goodman. The young Chagall explained, 'There's a place in town; if I'm admitted and if I complete the course, I'll come out a regular artist. I'd be so happy!' It was 1906, and he had noticed the studio of Yehuda (Yuri) Pen, a realist artist who also operated a small drawing school in Vitebsk, which included the future artists El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine. Due to Chagall's youth and lack of income, Pen offered to teach him free of charge. However, after a few months at the school, Chagall realized that academic portrait painting did not suit his desires. Artistic inspirations
Goodman notes that during this period in Russia, Jews had two basic alternatives for joining the art world: One was to 'hide or deny one's Jewish roots'. The other alternative—- the one that Chagall chose—- was 'to cherish and publicly express one's Jewish roots' by integrating them into his art. For Chagall, this was also his means of 'self-assertion and an expression of principle.'
Chagall biographer Franz Meyer, explains that with the connections between his art and early life 'the hassidic spirit is still the basis and source of nourishment for his art.' Lewis adds, 'As cosmopolitan an artist as he would later become, his storehouse of visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and ubiquitous fiddlers... with scenes of childhood so indelibly in one's mind and to invest them with an emotional charge so intense that it could only be discharged obliquely through an obsessive repetition of the same cryptic symbols and ideograms... '
Years later, at the age of 5while living in America, Chagall confirmed this when he published an open letter entitled, 'To My City Vitebsk':
Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? ... You thought, the boy seeks something, seeks such a special subtlety, that color descending like stars from the sky and landing, bright and transparent, like snow on our roofs. Where did he get it? How would it come to a boy like him? I don't know why he couldn't find it with us, in the city—in his homeland. Maybe the boy is 'crazy', but 'crazy' for the sake of art. ...You thought: 'I can see, I am etched in the boy's heart, but he is still 'flying,' he is still striving to take off, he has 'wind' in his head.' ... I did not live with you, but I didn't have one single painting that didn't breathe with your spirit and reflection.
Art career Russia (1906–1910)
During 1906, he relocated to St. Petersburg which was then the capital of Russia and the main venue of the country's artwork with its famous art schools. Since Jews were not permitted into the city without an internal passport, he managed to get a temporary passport from a friend. He enrolled in a prestigious art school and studied there for two years. By 1907, he had begun painting naturalistic self-portraits and landscapes.
Between 190to 1910, Chagall was a student of Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. While in St. Petersburg, he discovered experimental theater and the work of such artists as Paul Gauguin. Bakst, also Jewish, was a designer of decorative art and was famous as a draftsman designer of stage sets and costumes for the 'Ballets Russes,' and helped Chagall by acting as a role model for Jewish success. Bakst moved to Paris a year later. Art historian Raymond Cogniat writes that after living and studying art on his own for four years, 'Chagall entered into the mainstream of contemporary art. ...His apprenticeship over, Russia had played a memorable initial role in his life.
Chagall stayed in St. Petersburg until 1910, often visiting Vitebsk where he met Bella Rosenfeld. In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: 'Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me.' France (1910–1914)
During 1910, Chagall relocated to Paris to develop his artistic style. Art historian and curator James Sweeney notes that when Chagall first arrived in Paris, Cubism was the dominant art form, and French art was still dominated by the 'materialistic outlook of the 19th century.' But Chagall arrived from Russia with 'a ripe color gift, a fresh, unashamed response to sentiment, a feeling for simple poetry and a sense of humor', he adds. These notions were alien to Paris at that time, and as a result, his first recognition came not from other painters but from poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire.:Art historian Jean Leymarie observes that Chagall began thinking of art as 'emerging from the internal being outward, from the seen object to the psychic outpouring', which was the reverse of the Cubist way of creating.'The Fiddler', from which the musical takes its name (1912)
He therefore developed friendships with Guillaume Apollinaire and other avant-garde luminaries such as Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger. Baal-Teshuva writes that 'Chagall's dream of Paris, the city of light and above all, of freedom, had come true.' His first days were a hardship for the 23-year-old Chagall, who was lonely in the big city and unable to speak French. Some days he 'felt like fleeing back to Russia, as he daydreamed while he painted, about the riches of Russian folklore, his Hasidic experiences, his family, and especially Bella'.
In Paris, he enrolled at La Palette, an art academy where the painters André Dunoyer de Segonzac and Henri Le Fauconnier taught, and also found work at another academy. He would spend his free hours visiting galleries and salons, especially the Louvre, where he would study the works of Rembrandt, the Le Nain brothers, Chardin , Van Gogh, Renoir, Pissarro, Matisse, Gauguin, Courbet, Millet, Manet, Monet, Delacroix, and others. It was in Paris that he learned the technique of gouache, which he used to paint Belarusian scenes. He also visited Montmartre and the Latin Quarter 'and was happy just breathing Parisian air.' Baal-Teshuva describes this new phase in Chagall's artistic development:
Chagall was exhilarated, intoxicated, as he strolled through the streets and along the banks of the Seine. Everything about the French capital excited him: the shops, the smell of fresh bread in the morning, the markets with their fresh fruit and vegetables, the wide boulevards, the cafe′s and restaurants, and above all the Eiffel Tower.
Another completely new world that opened up for him was the kaleidoscope of colours and forms in the works of French artists. Chagall enthusiastically reviewed their many different tendencies, having to rethink his position as an artist and decide what creative avenue he wanted to pursue.
During his time in Paris, Chagall was constantly reminded of his home in Vitebsk, as Paris was also home to many painters, writers, poets, composers, dancers, and other émigre′s from the Russian Empire. However, 'night after night he painted until dawn', only then going to bed for a few hours, and resisted the many temptations of the big city at night. 'My homeland exists only in my soul', he once said.:viii He continued painting Jewish motifs and subjects from his memories of Vitebsk, although he included Parisian scenes—- the Eiffel Tower in particular, along with portraits. Many of his works were updated versions of paintings he had made in Russia, transposed into Fauvist or Cubist keys.
Chagall developed a whole repertoire of quirky motifs: ghostly figures floating in the sky, ... the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down. The majority of his scenes of life in Vitebsk were painted while living in Paris, and 'in a sense they were dreams', notes Lewis. Their 'undertone of yearning and loss', with a detached and abstract appearance, caused Apollinaire to be 'struck by this quality', calling them 'surnaturel!' His 'animal/human hybrids and airborne phantoms' would later become a formative influence on Surrealism. Chagall, however, did not want his work to be associated with any school or movement and considered his own personal language of symbols to be meaningful to himself. But Sweeney notes that others often still associate his work with 'illogical and fantastic painting', especially when he uses 'curious representational juxtapositions.'
Sweeney writes that 'This is Chagall's contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.' André Breton said that 'with him alone, the metaphor made its triumphant return to modern painting.' Russia and Soviet Belarus (1914–1922)
Because he missed his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebsk, 'He thought about her day and night', writes Baal-Teshuva, and was afraid of losing her. He therefore decided to accept an invitation from a noted art dealer in Berlin to exhibit his work, his intention being to continue on to Belarus, marry Bella, and then return with her to Paris. Chagall took 40 canvases and 160 gouaches, watercolors and drawings to be exhibited. The exhibit, held at Herwarth Walden's Sturm Gallery was a huge success, 'The German critics positively sang his praises.'People's Art School where the Vitebsk Museum of Modern Art was situated
After the exhibit, he continued on to Vitebsk, where he planned to stay only long enough to marry Bella. However, after a few weeks, the First World War began, closing the Russian border for an indefinite period. A year later he married Bella Rosenfeld and had their first child, Ida. Before the marriage, Chagall had difficulty convincing Bella's parents that he would be a suitable husband for their daughter. They were worried about her marrying a painter from a poor family and wondered how he would support her. Becoming a successful artist now became a goal and inspiration. According to Lewis, 'The euphoric paintings of this time, which show the young couple floating balloon-like over Vitebsk—- its wooden buildings faceted in the Delaunay manner—- are the most lighthearted of his career.' His wedding pictures were also a subject he would return to in later years as he thought about this period of his life.
The October Revolution of 191was a dangerous time for Chagall although it also offered opportunity. By then he was one of the Soviet Union's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, which enjoyed special privileges and prestige as the 'aesthetic arm of the revolution.' He was offered a notable position as a commissar of visual arts for the country, but preferred something less political, and instead accepted a job as commissar of arts for Vitebsk. This resulted in his initiating the Vitebsk Arts College which, adds Lewis, became the 'most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union.'
It obtained for its faculty some of the most important artists in the country, such as El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. He also added his first teacher, Yehuda Pen. Chagall tried to create an atmosphere of a collective of independently minded artists, each with their own unique style. However, this would soon prove to be difficult as a few of the major faculty members preferred a Suprematist art of squares and circles, and disapproved of Chagall's attempt at creating 'bourgeois individualism'. Chagall then resigned as commissar and relocated to Moscow.Bella with White Collar, 1917
During 191Chagall began exhibiting his work in Moscow, first exhibiting his works at a well-known salon and during 191exhibiting pictures in St. Petersburg. He again showed his art at a Moscow exhibition of avant-garde artists. This exposure caused his fame to increase and a number of wealthy collectors began buying his art. He also began illustrating a number of Yiddish books with ink drawings. Chagall had become 30 years old and had begun to become well known.
In Moscow he was offered a job as stage designer for the newly formed State Jewish Chamber Theater. It was set to begin operation during early 192with a number of plays by Sholem Aleichem. For its opening he created a number of large background murals using techniques he learned from Bakst, his early teacher. One of the main murals was feet (2.m) tall by 2feet (7.m) long and included images of various lively subjects such as dancers, fiddlers, acrobats, and farm animals. One critic at the time called it 'Hebrew jazz in paint.' Chagall created it as a 'storehouse of symbols and devices', notes Lewis. The murals 'constituted a landmark' in the history of the theatre, and were forerunners of his later large-scale works, including murals for the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera.
Famine spread after the war ended during 1918. The Chagalls found it necessary to relocate to a smaller, less expensive, town near Moscow, although he now had to commute to Moscow daily using crowded trains. In Moscow he found a job teaching art to war orphans. After spending the years between 192and 192living in primitive conditions, he decided to go back to France so that he could develop his art in a more comfortable country. Numerous other artists, writers, and musicians were also planning to relocate to the West. He applied for an exit visa and while waiting for its uncertain approval, wrote his autobiography, My Life. France (1923–1941)
During 192Chagall left Moscow to return to France. On his way he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. Nonetheless, after returning to Paris he again 'rediscovered the free expansion and fulfilment which were so essential to him', writes Lewis. With all his early works now lost, he began trying to paint from his memories of his earliest years in Vitebsk with sketches and oil paintings.
He formed a business relationship with French art dealer Ambroise Vollard. This inspired him to begin creating etchings for a series of illustrated books, including Gogol's Dead Souls, the Bible, and the Fables of La Fontaine. These illustrations would eventually come to represent his finest printmaking efforts. In 1924, he travelled to Brittany and painted La fenêtre sur l'Île-de-Bréhat. By 192he had his first exhibition in the United States at the Reinhardt gallery of New York which included about 100 works, although he did not travel to the opening. He instead stayed in France, 'painting ceaselessly', notes Baal-Teshuva. It was not until 192that Chagall made his name in the French art world, when art critic and historian Maurice Raynal awarded him a place in his book Modern French Painters. However, Raynal was still at a loss to accurately describe Chagall to his readers:
Chagall interrogates life in the light of a refined, anxious, childlike sensibility, a slightly romantic temperament ... a blend of sadness and gaiety characteristic of a grave view of life. His imagination, his temperament, no doubt forbid a Latin severity of composition.
During this period he traveled throughout France and the Côte d'Azur, where he enjoyed the landscapes, colorful vegetation, the blue Mediterranean Sea, and the mild weather. He made repeated trips to the countryside, taking his sketchbook.:He also visited nearby countries and later wrote about the impressions some of those travels left on him:
I should like to recall how advantageous my travels outside of France have been for me in an artistic sense—- in Holland or in Spain, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, or simply in the south of France. There, in the south, for the first time in my life, I saw that rich greenness—- the like of which I had never seen in my own country. In Holland I thought I discovered that familiar and throbbing light, like the light between the late afternoon and dusk. In Italy I found that peace of the museums which the sunlight brought to life. In Spain I was happy to find the inspiration of a mystical, if sometimes cruel, past, to find the song of its sky and of its people. And in the East Palestine I found unexpectedly the Bible and a part of my very being.
The Bible illustrations'The Prophet Jeremiah' (1968)
After returning to Paris from one of his trips, Vollard commissioned him to illustrate the Old Testament version of the Bible. Although he could have completed the project in France, he used the assignment as an excuse to travel to Palestine to experience for himself the Holy Land. He arrived there during February 193and ended up staying for two months. Chagall felt at home in Palestine where many people spoke Yiddish and Russian. According to Baal-Teshuva, 'he was impressed by the pioneering spirit of the people in the kibbutzim and deeply moved by the Wailing Wall and the other holy places.'
Chagall later told a friend that Palestine gave him 'the most vivid impression he had ever received.' Wullschlager notes, however, that whereas Delacroix and Matisse had found inspiration in the exoticism of North Africa, he as a Jew in Palestine had different perspective. 'What he was really searching for there was not external stimulus but an inner authorization from the land of his ancestors, to plunge into his work on the Bible illustrations.'Chagall stated that 'In the East I found the Bible and part of my own being.'
As a result, he immersed himself in 'the history of the Jews, their trials, prophecies, and disasters', notes Wullschlager. She adds that beginning the assignment was an 'extraordinary risk' for Chagall, as he had finally become well known as a leading contemporary painter, but would now end his modernist themes and delve into 'an ancient past.' Between 193and 193he worked 'obsessively' on 'The Bible', even going to Amsterdam in order to study carefully the biblical paintings by Rembrandt and El Greco, to see the extremes of religious painting. He walked the streets of the city's Jewish quarter to again feel the earlier atmosphere. He told Franz Meyer:
I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.
Chagall saw the Old Testament as a 'human story, ... not with the creation of the cosmos but with the creation of man, and his figures of angels are rhymed or combined with human ones', writes Wullschlager. She points out that in one of his early Bible images, 'Abraham and the Three Angels', the angels sit and chat over a glass of wine 'as if they have just dropped by for dinner.'
He returned to France and by the next year had completed 3out of the total of 10plates. By 1939, at the beginning of World War II, he had finished 66. However, Vollard died that same year. When the series was completed during 1956, it was published by Edition Tériade. Baal-Teshuva writes that 'the illustrations were stunning and met with great acclaim. 'Once again Chagall had shown himself to be one of the 20th century's most important graphic artists.' Leymarie has described these drawings by Chagall as 'monumental' and,
...full of divine inspiration, which retrace the legendary destiny and the epic history of Israel to Genesis to the Prophets, through the Patriarchs and the Heroes. Each picture becomes one with the event, informing the text with a solemn intimacy unknown since Rembrandt.:ix
Nazi campaigns against modern art
Not long after Chagall began his work on the Bible, Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany. Anti-Semitic laws were being introduced and the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established. Wullschlager describes the early effects on art:
The Nazis had begun their campaign against modernist art as soon as they seized power. Expressionist, Cubist, abstract, and surrealist art—- anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or difficult to understand—- was targeted, from Picasso and Matisse going back to Cézanne and Van Gogh; in its place traditional German realism, accessible and open to patriotic interpretation, was extolled.
Beginning during 193about twenty thousand works from German museums were confiscated as 'degenerate' by a committee directed by Joseph Goebbels.'Although the German press had once 'swooned over him', the new German authorities now made a mockery of Chagall's art, describing them as 'green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air ... representing an assault on Western civilization.'.'
After Germany invaded and occupied France, the Chagalls naively remained in Vichy France, unaware that French Jews, with the help of the Vichy government, were being collected and sent to German concentration camps, from which few would return. The Vichy collaborationist government, directed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, immediately upon assuming power establish a commission to 'redefine French citizenship' with the aim of stripping 'undesirables', including naturalized citizens, of their French nationality. Chagall had been so involved with his art, that it was not until October 1940, after the Vichy government, at the behest of the Nazi occupying forces, began approving anti-Semitic laws, that he began to understand what was happening. Learning that Jews were being removed from public and academic positions, the Chagalls finally 'woke up to the danger they faced.' But Wullschlager notes that 'by then they were trapped.' Their only refuge could be America, but 'they could not afford the passage to New York' or the large bond that each immigrant had to provide upon entry to ensure that they would not become a financial burden to the country. Escaping occupied France
According to Wullschlager, 'The speed with which France collapsed astonished everyone: the French army, with British support, capitulated even more quickly than Poland had done' a year earlier, even though Poland had been attacked by both Germany and the Soviet Union. 'Shock waves crossed the Atlantic... as Paris had until then been equated with civilization throughout the non-Nazi world.' Yet the attachment of the Chagalls to France 'blinded them to the urgency of the situation.' Many other well-known Russian and Jewish artists eventually sought to escape: these included Chaim Soutine, Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Ludwig Fulda, author Victor Serge and prize-winning author Vladimir Nabokov, who although not Jewish himself, had a 'passionate interest' in Jews and Israel. Russian author Victor Serge described many of the people living temporarily in Marseilles who were waiting to emigrate to America:
Here is a beggar's alley gathering the remnants of revolutions, democracies and crushed intellects... In our ranks are enough doctors, psychologists, engineers, educationalists, poets, painters, writers, musicians, economists and public men to vitalize a whole great country.
After prodding by their daughter Ida, who 'perceived the need to act fast,'and with help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was saved by having his name added to the list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate. Varian Fry, the American journalist, and Hiram Bingham IV, the American Vice-Consul in Marseilles, ran a rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas to the US. Chagall was one of over 2,000 who were rescued by this operation. He left France during May 1941, 'when it was almost too late', adds Lewis. Picasso and Matisse were also among artists invited to come to America but they decided to remain in France. Chagall and Bella arrived in New York on June 23, 1941, which was the next day after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Ida and her husband Marc followed on the notorious refugee ship SS Navemar with a large case of Chagall's work. America (1941–1948)Photo portrait of Chagall in 194by Carl Van Vechten
Even before arriving in America during 1941, Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize during 1939. After being in America he discovered that he had already achieved 'international stature', writes Cogniat. He felt ill-suited in this new role in a foreign country, however, one the language of which he could not yet speak. He became a celebrity mostly against his will, feeling lost in the strange surroundings.
After a while he began to settle in New York, which was full of writers, painters, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions. He spent time visiting galleries and museums, and befriended other painters including Piet Mondrian and André Breton.
Baal-Teshuva writes that Chagall 'loved' going to the sections of New York where Jews lived, especially the Lower East Side. There he felt at home, enjoying the Jewish foods and being able to read the Yiddish press, which became his main source of information since he did not yet speak English.
Contemporary artists did not yet understand or even like Chagall's art. According to Baal-Teshuva, 'they had little in common with a folkloristic storyteller of Russo-Jewish extraction with a propensity for mysticism.' The Paris School, which was referred to as 'Parisian Surrealism,' meant little to them. Those attitudes would begin to change, however, when Pierre Matisse, the son of recognized French artist Henri Matisse, became his representative and managed Chagall exhibitions in New York and Chicago during 1941. One of the earliest exhibitions included 2of his masterpieces from 1910 to 1941. Art critic Henry McBride wrote about this exhibit for the New York Sun:
Chagall is about as gypsy as they come... these pictures do more for his reputation than anything we have previously seen... His colors sparkle with poetry... his work is authentically Russian as a Volga boatman's song...
Aleko ballet (1942)
He was offered a commission by choreographer Leonid Massine, of the New York Ballet Theatre to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet, Aleko. This ballet would stage the words of Pushkin's verse narrative The Gypsies with the music of Tchaikovsky. While Chagall had done stage settings before while in Russia, this was his first ballet, and it would give him the opportunity to visit Mexico. While there he quickly began to appreciate the 'primitive ways and colorful art of the Mexicans,' notes Cogniat. He found 'something very closely related to his own nature', and did all the color detail for the sets while there. Eventually, he created four large backdrops and had Mexican seamstresses sew the ballet costumes.
When the ballet premiered on September 194it was considered a 'remarkable success.' In the audience were other famous mural painters who came to see Chagall's work, including Diego Rivera and José Orozco. According to Baal-Teshuva, when the final bar of music ended, 'there was a tumultuous applause and 1curtain calls, with Chagall himself being called back onto the stage again and again.' The ballet also opened in New York City four weeks later at the Metropolitan Opera and the response was repeated, 'again Chagall was the hero of the evening.' Art critic Edwin Denby wrote of the opening for the New York Herald Tribune that Chagall's work:
has turned into a dramatized exhibition of giant paintings... It surpasses anything Chagall has done on the easel scale, and it is a breathtaking experience, of a kind one hardly expects in the theatre.
Coming to grips with World War II
After Chagall returned to New York during 1943, however, current events began to interest him more, and this was represented by his art, where he painted subjects including the Crucifixion and scenes of war. He learned that the Germans had destroyed the town where he was raised, Vitebsk, and became greatly distressed. He also learned about the Nazi concentration camps. During a speech during February 1944, he described some of his feelings:
Meanwhile, the enemy jokes, saying that we are a 'stupid nation.' He thought that when he started slaughtering the Jews, we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of 'Christianity' in the world—- say whatever you like—- but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent... I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—- who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn't concern them.
In the same speech he credited his homeland of Belarus with doing the most to save the Jews:
The Jews will always be grateful to it. What other great country has saved a million and a half Jews from Hitler's hands, and shared its last piece of bread? What country abolished antisemitism? What other country devoted at least a piece of land as an autonomous region for Jews who want to live there? All this, and more, weighs heavily on the scales of history.
On September 1944, Bella died suddenly due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortage of medicine. As a result, he stopped all work for many months, and when he did resume painting his first pictures were concerned with preserving Bella's memory. Wullschlager writes of the effect on Chagall: 'As news poured in through 194of the ongoing Holocaust at Nazi concentration camps, Bella took her place in Chagall's mind with the millions of Jewish victims.' He even considered the possibility that their 'exile from Europe had sapped her will to live.'
After a year of living with his daughter, Ida, and her husband Michel Gordey, he entered into a romance with Virginia Haggard, great-niece of the author Henry Rider Haggard; their relationship endured seven years. They had a child together, David McNeil, born 2June 1946,; Haggard recalled her 'seven years of plenty' with Chagall in her book, My Life with Chagall (Robert Hale, 1986).
A few months after the French succeeded in liberating Paris from Nazi occupation, with the help of the Allied armies, Chagall published a letter in a Paris weekly, 'To the Paris Artists':
In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.