I Hope They Have Cows: Marc Chagall

Andréa Fernandes

On this date in 1944, Bella Rosenfeld Chagall passed away from a viral infection. As the love of Marc Chagall's life, Bella was his model and his inspiration for 35 years. In honor of their love, and at the request of reader BobM, today we'll take a look at Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and his 1918 painting, "Double Portrait with a Wineglass," of himself and Bella.

1. Shortly after arriving back in Paris after several years spent home in Belarus, Marc Chagall was greeted with a surrealist delegation that included Max Ernst. According to TIME magazine, the artists "actually knelt before Chagall, begging him to join their ranks," but he refused, saying, "I want an art of the earth and not merely an art of the head."

2. When World War II broke out, Chagall was urged by the Emergency Rescue Committee to move to America, but he was loathe to go. He asked an agent from the committee, Varian Fry, if there were any cows in America. Fry assured him that America had not just cows, but goats too. Chagall then asked if there were trees and green grass. Fry replied, "We have all that," after which Chagall was apparently "enormously relieved." The Chagall family and 3,500 pounds of Chagall's artwork were loaded onto a transatlantic ship, and the family spent the next several years in America.

3. In 1960, Chagall created stained glass windows depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel for the synagogue of the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem. During the Six Day War, the hospital came under attack. Chagall, who was in France at the time, wrote a letter that stated, "I am not worried about the windows, only about the safety of Israel. Let Israel be safe and I will make you lovelier windows." Fortunately, only one window sustained significant damage; most had been removed in time.

4. Many works by Chagall include a violinist either floating in mid-air above a village or sitting on the edge of a peaked roof. His autobiography even includes a passage about his uncle playing the fiddle on a roof. Supposedly, this imagery inspired the title of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."

5. During a vacation in upstate New York in 1944, Chagall's beloved Bella came down with strep throat. Chagall, who couldn't speak English very well, was turned away from the hospital to which he brought her, being told that it was too late. After she passed away the next day, Chagall couldn't bring himself to paint for nine months. Over the course of that time, he helped their daughter Ida translate Bella's memoirs of Russia, Burning Lights, for publication.

A larger version of "Double Portrait with a Wineglass" is available here. Fans should check out the Marc Chagall museum; Chagall's autobiography, My Life; the Chagall collections at MoMA and the Martin Lawrence Galleries; and Chagall's 1965 cover for TIME and the accompanying article. Current Exhibit:Chagall, un peintre à la fenêtre (Nice, France: through October 13, 2008) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.