The surrealist in love: What Chagall’s wedding portrait says about artists and marriage

Artists are supposedly bad at marriage. The evidence: Picasso, to use one word. Hemingway, to use another. Elizabeth Taylor, if you just want to drop the mic. There’s an entire movie (and a pretty good one at that) devoted to Picasso’s destructive infidelity, and of course an entire industry devoted to picking through the carcasses of artists’ marital failures.

And then there’s Marc Chagall. A gentle soul in a brutal world, Chagall survived World War I, the Russian Revolution, anti-Semitism, Communists, Nazis, exile, and the flighty impulses of the avant-garde art world. He lived to be nearly 100. And for 35 of those years, he was married to Bella Rosenfeld—constantly and spectacularly in love.

"Double Portrait with Wine Glass," on view through July in Mia's Cargill Gallery.

“Double Portrait with Wine Glass,” on view through July in Mia’s Cargill Gallery.

Mia is displaying Chagall’s Double Portrait with Wine Glass through July 30, on loan from the Centre Georges Pompidou, France’s national museum of modern art. Painted between 1917 and 1918, it’s one of many wedding portraits that Chagall continued to make well after his nuptials to Rosenfeld in 1915. He never came down from the excitement of that moment, and the paintings suggest as much.

In most of them, he and his bride are flying, defying the gravity of a troubled world. In the painting at Mia, Chagall is riding on Rosenfeld’s shoulders in the sky above their Russian hometown. In Birthday, painted closer to the wedding, they are hovering around an apartment, as one critic put it, like “two astonished bubbles of ecstasy.”

It’s as though he couldn’t quite believe he’d pulled it off—married the person he’d fallen for at first sight—and vice versa.

“I had only to open my window, and blue air, love and flowers entered with her,” Chagall wrote. “She seemed to float over my canvases, guiding my art.” Rosenfeld was similarly smitten: “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.”

The Muse

That Chagall was able to float above the trauma of his times may be because he remained grounded. He identified so strongly as Russian and Jewish that no matter where he went he was connected to something outside himself. At a time when Jews had almost nowhere to call home, he carried a version of home with him—even as his real hometown was all but obliterated (only 118 people out of 240,000 in the city survived World War II). His imagination shaped and reshaped it. In his autobiography, he even claimed a fictitious artist from a Jewish folktale as his grandfather.

Bella, the hometown girl, was part of this identity. After she died in 1944, Chagall didn’t paint for nine months, instead finishing a book she had started about their hometown. Though he would have other loves after her—an affair with a married woman and a second marriage to a younger, controlling heiress—he always returned to Bella in his thoughts and work. She was that thing that artists will stay loyal to above all else: a muse.

“It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future,” he wrote of Bella in 1921 or ’22, about their first encounter, “as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me.”

Top image: (left) A detail of Double Portrait with Wine Glass, by Marc Chagall, on loan from the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. (Right) Chagall at left with Bella Rosenfeld in their Paris apartment in 1938.