AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
In 1909, Chagall painted the first known portrait of his future wife, Bella (Berta) Rosenfeld. Known as My Fiancee in Black Gloves, this painting is usually viewed as his expression of admiration and love for Bella, who, apparently, was then only fourteen years old. When it is placed next to Chagall's Self-Portrait with Brushes, from the same year, the two paintings, although not looking towards each other, seem to create a double portrait that recalls similar creations in the great art of the past.
Two additional portraits of women, also painted in 1909 and misleadingly known as portraits of the artist's sisters, actually represent two other female friends of Chagall's from that time, Thea Brachman and Bella Germont, both of them talented, university-educated young women. Juxtaposed with the portraits of Bella Rosenfeld and Chagall's self-portrait, they tell much about the young artist's differing attitudes towards each woman, their artistic and intellectual influence upon him, his ambivalences, and the questioning of his own role in these relationships. They also pay tribute to artists whose works interested Chagall at the time, such as Rembrandt, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse, and they show his appreciation for Russian Symbolism and the art of icons.
Several additional drawings and sketches that accompany the portraits of Bella Rosenfeld reveal further aspects of their relationship: Chagall's feeling of inferiority towards the rich and educated Bella, who was not a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in 1909, but rather a twenty-year-old Moscow student of history, literature and philosophy. The new understanding of their relationship points towards his resentment and desire, her reserve and aloofness, and finally to why they do not look at each other in the final versions of their portraits.
Marc Chagall's paintings depicting his wife Bella and himself as a loving couple are famous. (1) They were painted during the turbulent years of World
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 8 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 10 OMITTED]
War I and the Russian Revolution, when Chagall returned to Vitebsk after finally having achieved recognition in Paris. Now he was ready to marry the girl with whom he had begun a relationship six years earlier. She was to become Chagall's faithful companion, mother of their daughter Ida, his model and inspiration. After the couple left Russia for good in 1923 and throughout his later work, the majority of which was created in the West, Bella appears as an eternally young bride hovering with her lover-painter above their hometown, Vitebsk (Fig. 1). This youthful image of Bella as a bride became one of Chagall's recognizable symbols, referring both to his own childhood and youth in Vitebsk and to the east European Jewish life that had disappeared and become romanticized, and was the object of longing in many of his fantastic paintings. (2) Bella's youthfulness was emphasized by the apparent age difference between them, preserving her in his memory almost as a child. It was as such a child-bride that she became one of the characters inhabiting the imaginary shtetl-world that Chagall created in his paintings, and that her youth helped in presenting as an unspoiled, colorful and playful experience.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
But how young was Bella, actually, when she met Marc Chagall? According to the short biography that appeared at the end of the first Yiddish edition of her book Brenendike likht (Burning lights, 1945), she was born in Vitebsk on December 15, 1895. (3) The same year was also given in her American death certificate and inscribed on her tombstone. (4) Since Chagall was born in 1887, the age difference between them, according to this, was eight years.
Thus, for many years it was believed that in autumn 1909, when they first met and became engaged, Bella was only fourteen years old and still a schoolgirl, while Chagall, a student, had already chosen his life's vocation. (5) Since there was a custom for east European Jews, especially women, to enter very young into arranged marriages, this did not seem strange. Chagall's parents, born in the second half of the nineteenth century, were married young, and his mother probably gave birth to the future painter, her firstborn, at the age of sixteen or seventeen. (6) However, this practice was no longer popular in the generation that reached marriageable age, as Marc and Bella did, at the beginning of the twentieth century, as rapid changes swept through Jewish society in Russia, and the traditional world increasingly was challenged by modernity and secularism. (7)
The problem of Bella's age becomes especially clear when one examines her earliest portrait, entitled My Fiancee in Black Gloves (Fig. 2; see p. 132), which was created at that time. In it, Bella looks older then fourteen, both physically and intellectually. She is shown wearing a white dress, black gloves and a dark blue hat. Her long, brown hair is left loose. She stands before a shelf, upon which, among other objects, are a book and a partially visible, tall, leafy plant with white flowers at its top. The feminine shape of her body, her hands resting on her hips, and the straight, proud posture create the impression of a self-confident young woman, rather than a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. Moreover, Chagall's Self-Portrait with Brushes (Fig. 3; see p. 132), painted around the same time, seems to conduct a dialogue with Bella's portrait. Both paintings use the contrast of black and white: She is dressed in white with black gloves, while he wears a black outfit with a white collar. In addition, they both display theatrical poses, flowers and elements relating to their special interests: brushes in his portrait; a book in hers. This dialogue between the two portraits presents the pair as intellectual equals, complementing each other.
The puzzle of Bella's actual age has recently been solved. Lyudmila Khmelnitskaya, Director of the Marc Chagall Museum in Vitebsk, discovered among the documents related to Bella's studies in the Alekseevsk Gymnasium for girls in Vitebsk (now kept in the National Historical Archive of the Belarus Republic in Minsk) a record showing that her true birth date was December 14, 1889 (not 1895). (8) In addition, Benjamin Harshav found in the archive of her daughter Ida two photographs of Bella taken in June 1907, one of them with a dedication to her best friend Thea Brachman and the other indicating that this was the year they both finished high school. (9) It thus seems that upon their meeting in autumn 1909, Bella was almost twenty years old, only two years younger than Chagall.
Why, then, did Chagall and Bella perpetuate the myth of her young age, and what was the nature of their relationship when they first met? In order to answer this, and to understand better the early days of their courtship, it will help us to examine the portraits of two other women painted by Chagall in 1909. Today they are known as portraits of the artist's sisters, but--as will be shown--they are not. Examining their subjects' true identity, juxtaposing them to the portrait of Bella, and taking her true age into consideration will enable us to reach a better understanding of Chagall's self-perception, his art and the influence these women had upon his early development.
Portrait of Thea Brachman
Before meeting Bella, Chagall was emotionally involved with Thea Brachman, Bella's best friend at school. He may have met her during the 1908/09 school year in St. Petersburg, where Thea, having graduated high school in Vitebsk, had gone, probably in order to study art history and literature. (10) He was introduced to her through their mutual Vitebsk friend, Victor Mekler, Chagall's schoolmate, a fellow artist and a member of Vitebsk's circle of young Jewish intellectuals, which often met in Thea's house. (11) Most members of this circle were children of Vitebsk's affluent Jewish families, whose parents, influenced by the Jewish enlightenment, had invested in their secular education. These privileged young people studied in the big cities, traveled abroad, wrote poetry and sketched. When at home on vacation, they often met to play music together, read poems, perform in original theatrical productions and engage in intellectual discussions. (12)
Thea and Bella had known each other since 1901. They had attended the same private Christian school and became best friends, studying in the same class until the end of high school (Fig. 4, p. 136). (13) Chagall met Bella at Thea's house in autumn 1909. Since it was Bella and not Thea who became Chagall's fiancee and later his wife, little is known of this earlier relationship. However, Thea, as Chagall told his biographer and son-in-law Franz Meyer, marked a "turning point" in his life. (14)
The daughter of a Vitebsk physician, (15) Thea was a cultivated, intelligent and talented young girl. In her memoirs, Bella wrote about her friend:
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
There was nothing Thea …