Balanced, generously illustrated biography of the revolutionary artist (1887–1985).
Financial Times chief visual-arts critic Wullschlager (Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, 2001, etc.) begins quietly. Russian-born Chagall, having escaped the Nazis, moved to the United States and settled with his devoted wife, Bella, and grown daughter, Ida, in Manhattan, where his art had not yet attracted the notoriety it does today. The author notes that Chagall never much departed from his “triple fixations”—Judaism, Russia and love—and the remainder of the text convincingly supports her thesis. Born in Vitebsk, Movsha Khatskelev Shagal (the name alteration came later) was the son of the working class, one of nine children. His education was spotty, but in 1903 he took his first formal art lessons and continued making art until the end of his life. Wullschlager charts his early financial struggles; his repeated returns to Vitebsk when funds ran out; his long, sometimes absentee, courtship of Bella; his sojourns in St. Petersburg, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere; his involvement in the 1917 revolution, in which he served as a government official; and his interest in theatrical design. He was living in France when the Nazis attacked, and Hitler pointed to Chagall’s works as instances of decadent Jewish art. He eventually escaped and lived for years in the United States without learning English. When World War II ended, he returned to France, where he lived the remainder of his life. Later he visited Russia but refused to see Vitebsk, which was devastated by the war. Thrice married and twice a father, Chagall lived to become wealthy and revered.
A well-written, compassionate portrait of a paragon of human talent and ambition.