Love story in paintings: Marc Chagall and Bella Rosenfeld
Could the daughter of Viciebsk jewelry dealers, a girl from a decent Jewish wealthy family, find a worthy spouse? No doubt, she could, and even should. But Basia-Reiza Rosenfeld judged in her own way. She fell in love with the poor artist Moisei Segal and gave him her heart. She didn’t hurry. She learnt, wrote letters to her beloved, and waited for him to finally return to his native Viciebsk. She believed: it was he who was the only one she needed, this "picturesque young man, about 25 years old, with strange wide eyes looking out from beneath his wild curls," and there wouldn’t be a second one.
poverty and wealth,
frequent travels — Bella Rosenfeld,
faithful Muse and wife of Marc Chagall
, was with him for almost 30 years. His Angel,
his symbol of love in all his paintings,
Bella understood Chagall as no one else,
and accepted him as he was. Not a single painting was completed without her approval,
the artist worshipped her,
loved her like nobody after,
until the end of his long life.
Despite the well-known biographical data, the age difference between Marc and Bella was only two years: Chagall was born on 7 July 1887, and Bella was born on 14 December 1889, and not 1895, as many art historians believed. Both grew at the same time in Viciebsk, a city on the outskirts of the boundary of a settled area, identified for the Jewish population by Catherine II in the 18th century. The city of dozens of Christian churches and synagogues, called Russian Toledo by Ilya Repin, Viciebsk gave shelter to thousands of Jews, who made up more than half of its population. In this city, which looked from the high banks to the fast Dvina, spoke Yiddish and closed the doors of offices and shops on Saturdays, both heroes of our story were born.
Little Moishe Segal lived in the Pieskavaciki area, a poor outskirts not better than a village — there, among the wobbly wooden houses, hens and goats walked freely. The Rosenfelds were merchants who paid tribute to the Viciebsk way of life: the jewellery dealers lived in the centre, they kept a cow in the barn, which they always took to the country with them. Viciebsk used to be a fairly large city with several theatres, a city symphony orchestra, and an art school, which was founded by Yehuda Pen.
Basia and Moishe belonged to different classes, but they grew up in an atmosphere of love. The young and energetic Feiga-Ita Segal adored her firstborn, giving him all her love that was not very much demanded by her sedate and calm husband Khatskel. "My dreaminess, I took it from my mother," Chagall wrote to his sisters in 1912. Attention, love, a tidbit — Feiga-Ita always spoiled her Moishe, the blue-eyed, curly handsome, unwittingly distinguishing him from her nine offsprings. This deep inner connection with his mother would remain with Chagall forever, and the deep "feminine" note would sound in his paintings. Mother was the energy and movement, the first half of his life; father was the thoughtfulness and regularity that came to Chagall in his mature years.
The hard bitten and prudent, always preoccupied with her jewellery store business, Madame Frida Rosenfeld loved her youngest daughter, her eighth child, in her own way. She didn’t show it much to Basia herself, but she certainly didn’t forbid her husband and family to pamper the girl in every way.
The lives of both families centred around religious life, customs, traditional meals and the Jewish holidays. Love for people and animals, song and dance, joy and intuitive communication with God — all this was present in the life of Hasidim, bringing man and nature into a state of inner harmony. Over the years, Marc brought all this to his paintings, and Bella brought it into her family life.
His mother bought him a place in the gymnasium,
but Chagall only made good progress in geometry and drawing. He began his art education at Yehuda Pen
's Art School. The academicism and naturalism that the teacher was committed to did not inspire Chagall at all. However,
as a talented student,
Chagall only paid Pen for the first two months of his studies. Chagall rebelled with colour,
composition… He did not yet understand how to do it,
but he knew exactly how he did not want to draw. From the Pen’s archaic genre,
young Chagall went to his own theatrical expressiveness and spirituality of Jewish life.
Meanwhile, Bella diligently mastered French and German at the Alekseevskaya Women’s Gymnasium, which she graduated with a silver medal. This gave the Jewish girl the opportunity to continue her studies in Moscow or St. Petersburg. In 1900, after the break, the Moscow Higher Women’s Courses (also known as Guerrier Courses by the name of their founder and director, historian, professor of Moscow University Vladimir Ivanovich Guerrier) opened again.
Teya Brakhman (left) and Bella Rosenfeld
In 1907, two friends, graduates of the Viciebsk Alekseevskaya Gymnasium Tauba Brakhman and Basia Rosenfeld petitioned for their admission to Guerrier courses. Basia was interested in the Faculty of History and Philosophy, where she specialized in Russian literature, studied psychology and logic, history of philosophy. The learning costed 100 rubles a year — Basia’s parents could afford such expenses. Obviously, then Basia became Berta, and even later — Bella, Tauba Brakhman became Teya, and Moyshe Segal became Moses Chagall: at the beginning of the century many young Jews tried to change their name Russian-like, so as not to stand out.
Bella’s friend Teya Brakhman, the daughter of a Viciebsk pharmacist, recalled her documents and left for St. Petersburg, where she entered the Bestuzhev courses. Teya met Chagall back in Viciebsk — Viktor Mekler, Chagall’s classmate from gymnasium, an aspiring artist, became their link. When Chagall and Mekler arrived to the capital, the acquaintance resumed. Teya became Chagall’s "third affair" and his model. "Cheerful, sociable, ready to sing incessantly. Her jokes are biting, juicy. And for all this she is loved ever more. Teya likes boys company, she kisses their lips and fights with them. She treats girls with affection. She can admire a long neck or beautiful hands for hours… Is there anything that Teya can’t do? She plays the piano, cards, speaks German, knows poetic novelties by heart. And she writes. In lengthy messages on the sheets scribbled on all sides, which I received from her, there were always the last verses," recalled Bella Chagall about her friend in her book "Burning Lights".
Marc Chagall met his future wife in 1909 in Viciebsk, where he came to visit from St. Petersburg. The first meeting took place at the house of their mutual friend Teya Brakhman. Bella was 19 years old, he only turned 22. Chagall himself described this in his book "My Life":
"… this inappropriately appearing friend, her melodious voice, as if from another world, somehow excites me.
Who is she? Really, I’m scared. No, I have to come and talk.
But she is already saying goodbye. She leaves, barely glancing at me.
Teya and I also go out for a walk. And on the bridge, we meet her friend again.
She is alone, completely alone.
It dawned upon me: it’s with her, not with Teya, but with her, I must be!
She is silent, me too. She looks — oh, her eyes! — I look too. As if we knew each other a long time ago, and she knows everything about me: my childhood, my present life and what will happen to me; as if she was always watching me, was somewhere nearby, although I saw her for the first time.
And I realized: this was my wife.
Eyes shine on her pale face. Big, high, black! These are my eyes, my soul.
That moment, Teya became alienated and indifferent. I entered a new home, and it became mine forever"…
"I dare not raise my eyes and meet his gaze. His eyes are now greenish-grey, the colours of the sky and water. I’m swimming in them, like in a river," Bella wrote in her memoirs.
A year later,
Marc and Bella became bride and groom. Rosenfelds were against this union — the Chagalls with their small shop are no match for the merchants with two stores,
and why the future son-in-law blushes his cheeks — this is strange,
and his occupation is doubtful,
and the paintings are strange … But Bella has already chosen her match,
and insisted. Surely she cited the example of her elder sister Khana,
a Social Democrat who married a Bolshevik and thereby "paved" the way for her younger — Bella had someone to pass the buck to and had it her own way. They seemingly were going to marry,
but Chagall felt sort of sad and either scared or anxious… Having put the matrimonial matters away for later,
Marc left for St. Petersburg to study under Leon Bakst
, and from there he went to Paris.
"Paris, you are my Viciebsk!" exclaimed Chagall. There was no longer any embarrassment, no attempt to be like anyone. Colour symphonies glowed in his paintings, all grey, brown, dull was in the past. Success came, the artist got noticed, his name was increasingly heard in the creative society of Paris.
And what about Bella? After spending her usual summer vacation with her mother abroad, Bella returned to Moscow to continue her studies. In addition to the Higher Women’s Courses, she was attracted by the stage, so she went to acting classes at Stanislavsky’s studio. Literary ambitions were satisfied by cooperation with the Moscow newspaper Utro Rossii.
More than half of the students of the Higher Women’s Courses were girls from poor families, who did not withstand hard household or learning difficulties. Some did not have enough money to pay for their schooling — they were expelled without long conversations, especially girls of Jewish faith. Bella stood it all. She passed the final exams in November 1913, in February 1914 she defended her thesis and received her Candidate of Sciences Diploma.
All these years, Marc and Bella corresponded. "If I, dear Bella, would write letters like a real writer, I would certainly draw them. I am ashamed of words. Every time I have to correct them. But the soul requires to write to you in order that you answer and write me about everything, about everything … " — Marc suffered, scratching the words on paper.
The vague anxiety of 1914 made Chagall think about returning to his homeland. He arrived in Viciebsk for his sister’s wedding, and he understood that there was no escape from fate, as feelings flared up with renewed vigour, as if there weren’t years of separation. A year later, on 25 July 1915, he and Bella became husband and wife. A year later, the Chagalls had their only daughter Ida.
"Wait, don’t move…
I still held the flowers … You pounced on the canvas and it trembled at your fingertips, oh poor one. Brushes dipped in paints. Red, blue, white, black sprays scattered around. You spun me in a whirlwind of colours. And suddenly you tore me off the ground and pushed yourself with your foot, as if you felt cramped in that small room… You reached out, got up and floated under the ceiling. You threw back your head and turned mine towards yours. There you touched my ear with your lips and whisper… And here we both, in unison, slowly soar in the decorated room, fly up. We want to be free, through the window panes. There is a blue sky, clouds are calling us."
(Bella Chagall. Burning Lights)
You carry your hair
towards me and I sense
your eyes and awe, you body there
trembling and I want to ask again:
where are my erstwhile flowers
under a distant wedding blasphemy?
I remember: night, and you lay here,
and for the first time I lay with you
and we damped down the moon,
and the candles flamed up
and only you were the aspiration
for my love, for you alone’ve been chosen.
And you became my wife
for years to come. The sweetest.
You gave me our daughter, a rare gift
in the most solemn day…
Thank you oh G-d in the highest
For the day and for the month.
Bella refused her stage career, forgot about literature for years and devoted herself to her husband and daughter. It surely wasn’t very easy for her. But the first years of the Chagalls' married life were, say, a struggle for survival in the crazy, spasmodic movement of the First World War and the Russian revolutions.
Bella’s relatives helped Marc to leave for St. Petersburg and avoid military service. In 1918,
Chagall was appointed Commissioner for Arts in the Viciebsk province. Again the hometown,
though the city has changed,
it was full of new bustling life. Chagall decorated Viciebsk in honour of the first anniversary of the October Revolution,
and he did it on a grand scale (
and in his own style). He opened the School of Arts,
and gave his students the freedom to reveal their own talent. This is followed by a confrontation with Kazimir Malevich
, in which the creator of Suprematism had won.
The Chagalls moved to Moscow — Paris became inaccessible. Bella sold jewellery, as little Ida had to eat well. For some time, the artist taught in children’s colonies, then he created the famous scenery for the Jewish Theater, which were later saved for the descendants by Solomon Mikhoels… But still Chagall did not find himself in the main thing. Yes, he painted, but abstractionism, which flourished in the new Soviet art, was dissonant with his work. He was called "old-timer". He, Chagall! Marc strove to Paris, where he could create whatever he wanted, where he was already appreciated.
When an exhibition of his works opened in Berlin, he went there with his family, and in 1923 the Chagalls already were in Paris.
Old friends, new commissions — in Paris, Chagall felt easy and free. He was somewhat grieved with the loss of all his works that he once left in his workshop in the Hive. But the artist quickly made up for lost time, and soon the family felt themselves pretty well. Berta became Bella in the European manner. Chagall was carried away by illustration — he started it back in Berlin when he illustrated his memoir book "My Life" with graphics.
the artist illustrated Gogol’s Dead Souls
for Ambroise Vollard
and restored some of the lost paintings from his memory. There were commissions,
there were funds. The family traveled through France,
and in 1931,
the Chagalls went to Palestine — the land of their ancestors,
their faith. Returning home,
Chagall proceeded to illustrate the Bible. His life was full of creativity,
nearby were the loved ones — his wife and daughter.
"Marc Chagall painted several portraits of his wife from life. And about three thousand paintings,
in which her image is somehow depicted as flying women…", the artist’s biography in Arthive
By the mid-30s,
the atmosphere in Europe began rather dark. Hitler,
who came to power in Germany,
preached the ideas of Nazism,
the notorious Degenerative Art
exhibition took place — Marc’s paintings were there as well… In 1941,
at the very last moment,
Chagalls finally decided to leave for the USA. Many artists who fled from the flames of European war settled in New York. The story of the departure was not entirely unambiguous,
just as Marc Chagall,
who used to the opposite of what others expected from him.
Marc Chagall works in the workshop of Matisse
and finishes the works begun in Paris. He makes the scenery for the Aleko ballet directed by Leonid Myasin,
fights with Picasso for the order for Balanchine’s Firebird
; however Stravinsky chose the sketches by the Spaniard. Nevertheless,
Chagall made the costumes.
At the end of August 1944, Paris was liberated. The good news found the Chagalls on vacation, and they moved to New York with thoughts of an imminent return to France. Suddenly, Bella fell ill, and the next day, Chagall took her to a local hospital.
We’ll never know, whether she was really refused treatment as a Jewess, as the artist later recalled. According to Ida, by hook or by crook she managed to get penicillin, a very rare medicine at that time, and arrive to Altamon as quickly as possible, where her mother was in the hospital. As Ida herself later wrote to relatives, "when I arrived with penicillin, it was too late. Mom was in a coma, and at 6 pm she died. Mom had a streptococcal infection in her throat." However, official evidence stated that diabetes was the cause of Bella Chagall’s death.
After the funeral, Chagall was inconsolable. "When Bella passed away, on 2 September 1944, at six in the evening, a thunderstorm broke out and continuous rain poured out onto the ground. It got dark in my eyes", the artist wrote. He reproached himself for his sluggishness, he did not take brushes for nine months and turned all his canvases to the wall — he remembered her again and again, Her, the only one, his Angel, the beloved Bella… On the 30th day after Bella Chagall’s death, the Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists organized a funeral evening of her memory in Carnegie Hall, which was attended by about two hundred friends and acquaintances of the Chagall family.
Bella’s tombstone at Westcher Hills Cemetery near New York, created by Marc Chagall in 1965.
Chagall managed to overcome his grief and, with the help of his daughter, he honoured Bella’s memory with books of her memoirs: Ida translated the texts from Yiddish to French, and Chagall made illustrations and wrote an afterword. Bella Rosenfeld’s book "Burning Lights" was published in 1946, the second part of the memoirs, "The First Meeting" was published a year later. And no one will say better about Bella than her husband, Marc Chagall, who wrote the preface to her books: "…Her influence on my art was great for many years. But it seems to me that something faded in her, something got pushed aside. I thought that treasures were hidden in Bella’s heart… saturated with love… Was she ashamed of me, people, did she always want to remain in the shade? Until she heard the voice of the Jewish soul, until she saw the diaspora of recent years and the language of her parents became her language again… Who does she look like? She does not resemble anyone. After all, she’s his Bashnya-Bellochka from the Viciebsk mountain, reflected in the Dvinsk river, along with clouds, trees and houses. Things, people, landscapes, Jewish holidays, flowers — all these are her world and she talks about them."
… In this world, there was place for other companions of Chagall after Bella: one gave birth to his son and left him for a photographer, the other became his official wife. The roles and importance of these women in the artist’s life are still a matter of debate. But the image of Bella is quite clear: it was love.
Main illustration: Marc Chagall. Birthday, 1915 (detail)
Artists mentioned in the article