Over the Town

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Marc Chagall, Over the Town, 1918
By ISABEL THOMAS

In our life there is a single color, as on an artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.

On a family vacation over the summer, I skipped some of the more frivolous activities offered on the Allure of the Seas and, as a budding art historian, instead attended art lectures and three-hour auctions for paintings that I could never afford. During one of those lectures, the Park West Gallery representative painted a picture of the life of Marc Chagall, an artist with whom I became familiar the year before in Paris. Before the cruise, I had known Chagall simply as the man who recreated the ceiling of l’Opéra Garnier and painted colorful floating people, but as one of few audience members I learned about his tragic life and relationship with Bella Rosenfeld.

Chagall was born in Liozna, Russia (now Belarus) in 1887 and moved to Paris in 1910 to advance his artistic career. In 1914, he returned to Russia to marry Bella and bring her back to France with him. World War One broke out during Chagall’s trip to Vitebsk, and he could not leave the country. Marc and Bella did not return to France until 1923, and they once again escaped war when they left Nazi-occupied Paris for New York City in 1941. War eventually reached them in 1944 when Bella contracted a virus and died due to wartime medicine shortages. In addition to his wife’s death, the Holocaust sent Chagall into a deep depression, and, after a short hiatus, he painted only Bella to preserve her memory and the memory of his people.

Chagall’s comments about his wife were almost as colorful as his paintings. After he first met Bella, Chagall said, “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.” He created floating couples in his works to capture the celestial feeling of his love. In the early years of their marriage, Chagall included flowers in his paintings to celebrate their union, but these turned to funeral flowers after the war.

I had never learned to connect an artist’s personal situation with his/her work, and that lecture allowed me to see Chagall’s story and love for his wife in the details of his art. Over the Town, painted in 1918, captures weightless bliss in Chagall’s gray hometown.  The couple and a singular house provide the color of this work the same way that Bella brightened her husband’s world. I did not initially appreciate the appearance of this painting but learned that the historical and personal contexts are often more important. This understanding guided me through Art History, and the experience of that lecture brought me back every day of the trip and led me to this year’s class to discover the stories behind countless other paintings and sculptures.


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