David Nightingale: Marc Chagall

Jul 29, 2018

This essay is about the Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall, whose vividly colored modernist paintings sometimes had bodies floating above towns and partly cubist shapes. He was born in 1887 in a poor part of Vitebsk in Russia, or present-day Belarus.

His “sad and joyful town” formed the subject matter for many of his paintings, and even in his 90s (he died in 1985) the town was a strong force in Chagall’s memory and whole being.

He had told his mother (a poor shopkeeper) and father (a laborer at a fish warehouse) when he was about 13 that he intended to become an artist. Before leaving school, where his grades had been poor in everything except drawing and geometry, he had been taken on by the artist Professor Pen of the Vitebsk School of Painting and Drawing, who saw talent in the boy’s sketches.

At 19, with negligible money he and another young artist-hopeful friend managed to get to St Petersburg, the capital of Russia. St Petersburg was officially closed to Jews – but he spent 3 years there, sometimes painting signs for a living, sometimes even having to share a bed in the poorest of rooms – while producing sketches and paintings.

He returned home to Vitebsk at 23, and to a girlfriend Bella Rosenfeld, but a Jewish politician who had taken an interest in the young Chagall’s St Petersburg work, offered, in exchange for two of his paintings  – Russian Wedding and The Dead Man – a small monthly grant to go to Paris. He lived and painted in Paris between 1911-14, loving everything about the city. At 28 he returned to Russia to marry Bella, whose Russian-Jewish family had always lived on the rich side of Vitebsk.

During his long happy marriage to Bella his paintings slowly began to be noted, as were those of his Paris friends Picasso and Matisse.

Only because of time let’s now fast-forward to when Hitler’s forces attacked France at the beginning of World War II. He and Bella managed to escape, reaching NY with other Jewish escapees in 1941. Their newly married daughter, Ida, just managed to follow, enduring a horrendous 40-day zig-zag trip, avoiding submarines. That boat was severely overcrowded; food and water were scarce, people died, and sailors raped and attacked passengers.

By then Chagall was becoming known, and he rented an apartment in Manhattan.

In the summer ’44 Chagall and Bella went to Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks, where his beloved Bella sickened and died. Chagall’s daughter Ida cast around for someone to be his housekeeper, and found an English woman, Virginia Haggard, fluent in French, daughter of a diplomat, and with a 5-year-old daughter. Virginia was hired and soon became Chagall’s lover. They lived in High Falls NY between 1946 and 1948, where Virginia had their baby, David.

Five years after he and Bella had arrived in America the war was over and Chagall was back in his beloved Paris. He repeatedly wrote from Paris that he was eager to return. He said “… I know I must live in France but I don’t want to cut myself off from America ...” Nevertheless he did return to High Falls to see his baby son David.

Then in 1948 he, Virginia and the 2 children left their small house in High Falls and sailed back to France for good.

Chagall continued paintings about Bella – Bella in Blue, Bella in Green … and many more. He spent time with Picasso and Matisse, and in 1952 Virginia left him, inducing in him another depressed period, as when Bella had died.

In his 70s Chagall turned with a new enthusiasm to stained glass windows – which can now be seen in Zurich, Jerusalem and other cities … and, as I discovered with astonishment as I prepared this essay – the stained glass windows of the remote Tudeley Parish Church, only a short bike ride from where I grew up in Kent.

David Nightingale is Professor of Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is A Kitchen Course in Electricity and Magnetism, published by Springer, New York.

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