“In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.” (Marc Chagall)
Marc Chagall, Birthday, 1915
Earlier this year, in February, I was mesmerised by Chagall’s paintings and wrote two posts about him, The Paris Years (1910-1914) and Mystical Seven, this post – The Colour of Love – was an idea I had but never got round to. Well, these days I found myself daydreaming about Chagall’s portraits of lovers, and the mystic blueness of his paintings again, so consider this the third part of my Chagall trilogy.
Marc Chagall is one of those people who are full of love; love for life, colours, people, nature, memories, dreams, art, love towards sky, and night, and his village, and houses and his parents, composition and form, and colours, oh, he adored colours! Chagall’s paintings are landscapes of love, dreams and poetry. With Chagall, everything starts and ends with love – it’s pervading in his choice of subject, as he was fond of paintings his wife Bella and dreamy lovers flying above Paris, and always in his approach.
There’s a hint of Romanticism in his way of thinking, he said himself: ‘If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.‘ His paintings are so whimsical, dreamy and psychedelic really, that it’s hard to place them in a specific art movement; he was neither a Cubist nor a Surrealist and even though he always painted surrealistic scenes; lovers, cows and houses flying in air, fiddler on the roof, bodies and objects painted without respect for form, he steered clear from all formal classifications and manifestos. He stood as a loner and a dreamer.
Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower) by Marc Chagall, 1928
Love at first sight that started in 1909 when a beautiful daughter of a rich jeweller met a poor aspiring painter who worked as an apprentice for Leon Bakst, lasted thirty five years. What ended their love affair was not the change of feelings, but Bella’s death. In his autobiography ‘My Life’, which I highly recommend you to read, he poetically writes about 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; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul.’
Bella, although seemingly a quiet, pale and withdrawn girl, was enthusiastic about Chagall as well, and later wrote about being mesmerised by his ethereal pale blue eyes: ‘When you did catch a glimpse of his eyes, they were as blue as if they’d fallen straight out of the sky. They were strange eyes … long, almond-shaped … and each seemed to sail along by itself, like a little boat.‘ She also wrote of their first meeting: ‘I was surprised at his eyes, they were so blue as the sky … I’m lowering my eyes. Nobody is saying anything. We both feel our hearts beating.‘
Marc Chagall, Bella with White Collar, 1917
After years spent in Paris, between 1910 and 1914, Chagall and Bella finally married on 25 July 1915, despite having a hard time convincing her parents that he would make a good match. They didn’t care about their love, but were more worried about his career and social status. Still, less than a year later, on 18th May 1916, their first and only child, Ida, was born and the arrival of this little bundle of joy softened the bourgeois hearts of Bella’s parents.
Chagall was absolutely besotted with Bella, he thought about her all the time while in Paris, and when they finally married, he expressed this endless amount of love and joy that suddenly overwhelmed him through his art. In painting ‘Birthday’, we see figures of Bella and Chagall in a kiss, the strength of their love allows them to defy gravity; he is already flying of happiness, while she seems ready to join him, carrying a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Chagall painted their room with religious devotion to details, and the space seems oddly real; notice the intricately woven fabric on the right, then the knife and a little purse on the table, and the view from the room. Chagall describes his new-found happiness in a way a poet would, just using colours instead of words, and he tells us: it’s real and it’s here, for the first time.
Marc Chagall, Blue Landscape, 1949
Reading ‘My Life’ and observing his paintings from that period, you can sense his utter rapture and adoration for Bella. He even seems surprised that she could love him, this poor and clumsy boy who dreams of being a painter. He writes:
“In the mornings and evenings she would bring to my studio cakes she had baked with loving care, fried fish, boiled milk, colourful fabrics, and even boards of wood to use as an easel. All I had to do was open my window and in streamed the blueness of the sky, love and flowers with her. Dressed all in white or all in black, she has long been haunting my paintings, the great central image of my art.” (My Life)
Marc Chagall, The Promenade, 1917-18
You can really imagine him painting cows, fiddlers, lovers and poets in serenity all day, immersed in colour, meditating in every brushstroke, and the sparkle in his sky blue eyes when she’d enter the room. If only this beautiful dream, painted indeed in the colour of love, lasted forever. In both paintings, ‘Birthday’ and ‘Bella in White Collar’ we see Bella’s dress as he’d described it in the book. In painting ‘The Promenade’, he’s holding her hand like a balloon, with a wide smile on his face, while the town shaped in a Cubist style and painted in emerald green sleeps in the background.
It must have been wonderful to be loved by this gentle and humble dreamer with a vivid imagination. Lucky Bella.
Marc Chagall, Lovers with Half Moon, 1926
Chagall often paints lovers surrounded by a mystical blue colour, with a moon in the background, perhaps referring to his own love story with Bella again. In ‘My Life’, which is not a typical autobiography but a vibrant kaleidoscope of memories, he writes of kissing Bella at night, and also, one time, her parents locked the house and she couldn’t get outside to meet him so she got out through the window. Naturally, neighbourhood was gossiping, that’s not unusual for a small town like Vitebsk, and nobody would believe Chagall that his fiancee remained even more pure than Raphael’s Madonna, to quote Chagall himself. A reminder: this all takes place in 1909, and people tend to think that modern world is completely different, well I guess it isn’t. Love was love, and dreams were dreams – two main forces behind Chagall’s work.
Marc Chagall, Blue Lovers, 1914
Chagall’s anti-rational approach to art, typical for Surrealists, is perhaps best noticeable in his portrayals of dreamy lovers bathed in mystic blues. After his Parisian period (1910-1914) during which he flirted with Cubism, and enjoyed adding hints of geometry here and there, he suddenly freed his art even more, because it wasn’t stern to begin with. He felt an attraction for free forms, and purposefully employed the language of fantasy and games to develop a distinctively dreamy mood that still makes his paintings stand out. It’s that playful quality of Chagall’s art that drew me to it in the first place, but it’s not a shallow playfulness because it’s always tinged with a transcending appeal of the mystical blue colour he loved using in abundance. If you take a look at the paintings ‘Blue Lovers’ or ‘Lovers in Green’, it’s hard not to feel that dreamy, ethereal quality that lingers through his paintings.
Marc Chagall, Lovers in green, 1914-1915
After living in Vitebsk and St Petersburg, he left Russia for good in 1922 and settled in Paris, soon followed by Bella and Ida. Because of the political situation in Europe, he moved to New York in 1941. Unfortunately, a love dream that started in 1909, ended all too soon – Chagall and Bella didn’t grow old together.
A muse that filled his life and canvases with love for more than three decades vanished from this material world on 2 September 1944. When she died, Chagall turned all his canvases back to the wall and stopped painting for six months; it was the only period of his life, since he started painting, that he didn’t pick up a brush. He did remarry, in 1952 to Valentina ‘Vava’ Brodsky, but in every painting there’s a spirit of Bella’s light and warmth. She died, but she continued to pervade his thoughts and his canvases, and memories of her love guided his art like a star guiding the sailors.
Marc Chagall “Le bouquet d’amour”, c. 1960
What is the colour of love, then? It depends on the painter. For Chagall it seems to have been – blue.