During the second half of his life, Marc Chagall continued to paint and make prints, but he branched off into new territory. When he and his family escaped from Nazi Germany and arrived in New York on June 23, 1941, he was embraced by the art community of New York City. He was represented by Pierre Matisse, the son of Henri Matisse. Chagall lived in New York from 1941 until 1948, then returned to France where he lived for the rest of his life. Chagall met Picasso in Paris, and they admired each other. Chagall joked, “What a genius, that Picasso. It’s a pity he doesn’t paint.” Picasso famously said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is. His canvases are really painted, not just tossed together…I don’t know where he gets those images…He must have an angel in his head.”
Leon Bakst, Chagall’s original teacher in Russia, introduced him to theater and opera. In 1921, Chagall created sets and costumes for several plays by Sholem Aleichem. After he arrived in New York, the Ballet Theater of New York commissioned Chagall to design sets and costumes for Aleko (1942), a ballet by Leonide Massine, a fellow Russian. Chagall then designed sets and costumes for Firebird by Stravinsky for the Ballet Theater. In Paris, after WWII, he designed sets and costumes for the 1958 production of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.
Chagall was 77 years old when Andre Malraux, French Minister of Culture, commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opera (1963) (2,400 square feet) (440 pounds of paint). Chagall divided the ceiling into five sections that were glued to polyester panels and hoisted 70 feet to the ceiling. A controversy erupted. The Opera was a historic building, and Chagall was not French, and he was a modern artist. However, when the ceiling was unveiled to the public on September 23, 1964, the response was rapturous. All the critics were positive. Chagall refused to be paid for the work, allowing only the cost of materials to be covered.
Chagall’s ceiling design paid tribute to a host of famous composers, actors, and dancers. A large chandelier hangs from the center of the ceiling, and the inner circle depicts four scenes: Bizet’s “Carmen’’ in red, Verdi’s “La Traviata” in yellow, Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in blue and green, and Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” in green. In a red flared Spanish dress, Carmen dances, smiles, and winks. Behind her is the bull ring. Next to her is the witty image of a bull, dancing and playing the guitar.
In the large outer circle, Chagall depicts ten scenes: Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” in blue, Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in light blue, Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” in green, Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” in green, Rameau’s, unnamed work in white, Debussy’s “Peleus and Melisandre” in blue, Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” in red, Stravinsky’s “Fire Bird” in red, green, and blue, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in yellow, and Adam’s ”Giselle” in golden yellow. At the lower left border, Chagall depicts Odette, the white swan, rising from the water with a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Next to “Swan Lake,” the peasants dance under the village trees in “Giselle”
Chagall commented on the ceiling: “Up there in my painting I wanted to reflect, like a mirror in a bouquet, the dreams and creations of the singers and musicians, to recall the movement of the colorfully attired audience below, and to honor the great opera and ballet composers…Now I offer this work as a gift of gratitude to France and her School of Paris, without which there would be no color and no freedom.”
At 69 years old, Chagall was commissioned in 1956 to create his first stained-glass window for the Gothic Cathedral of Metz in France. Although a new medium for him, he accepted the challenge, learned from a stained-glass master, and conquered the technique. This work was followed by a commission for twelve windows, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, for the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem. Other commissions followed: windows for All Saint’s Church, Tudeley, UK (1963-1978), Union Church of Pocantico Hills, New York (1976), the Fraumunster in Zurich, Switzerland (1967), Cathedral of Notre Dame, Reims, France (1968-1974), Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, UK (1978), and St. Stephen’s Church, Mainz Germany (1978-86).
Three Chagall stained-glass windows are in America. “The Window of Peace and Human Happiness” (1964) (15’ wide and 12’ tall) in the United Nations Building, New York City, was commissioned to commemorate Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary general, who was killed in a plane crash on September 17, 1961, while on a peace mission to Africa.
Chagall divided the window in half with the tree of knowledge, represented by the snake that coils up from bottom center of the window. At the left are those who are in paradise, seen in the circle of light blue glass. This half of the window represents the theme “Love and Harmony” where animals, angels, and humans live together in peace. At the right side is “The Hostile World and Wars.” Composed of dark blue colors, the lower half consists of the anguished faces of people who struggle to survive. At the top right, is the Crucifixion. An angel with golden wings carries the Ten Commandments to a city below. A woman in dark purple and red kneels in grief for all those that have died in wars.
Above the serpent is an angel hugging a young girl who carries a bouquet of purple and red flowers. To Chagall these colors represented love. The angel and the girl reference the “Kiss of Peace.” Found in the New Testament, it was the greeting “peace be with you.” Included in the window are other symbols of peace and musical notes from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Hammarskjold’s favorite. Chagall wrote that he wanted people “not to see the window but to feel it. I should like people to be as moved as I was when I was engaged in this work which was done for people of all countries, in the name of peace and love.”
Chagall lived in Chicago while he was working on the mosaic “The Four Seasons” (1974) and was impressed by Chicago’s commitment to public art. To thank the City for its kindness and support showed while he worked on the mosaic, he offered to create a stained-glass window as a gift to the City. Chagall selected the theme “American Window” (1977) (30 feet wide x 8 feet tall) (Chicago Art Institute): “I lived here in America during the inhuman war in which humanity deserted itself. I have seen the rhythm of life. I have seen America fighting with Allies. The wealth that she has distributed to bring relief to the people who had to suffer the consequences of the war. I like America and the Americans. Above all, I am impressed by the greatness of the country and the freedom that it gives.” A second influence was the American Bicentennial. Chagall began work on the window in 1976, and it was dedicated on May 15, 1977.
Chagall worked with the French stained-glass artist Charles Marq, who developed a technique to allow three colors, not just one, on the pane. Chagall was able to paint on the glass with metallic oxide paint that was then fused to the glass by heating. The windows are divided into three parts, each with 2 panels that are divided into 12 panes.
The first window depicts Chicago history, emphasizing music, with musicians, instruments, and a musical score. A horn player in yellow is positioned at the top, with a musical score and a violin. The skyline of Chicago can be seen along the bottom of the window. The second panel features an artist’s palette and paint brushes, and at the lower right in red, a still life of fruit in a bowl.
The second window shows the unity among Chicago neighborhoods, the City skyline continuing across the bottom of the window. In the third panel the emphasis is on literature and freedom of speech. At the bottom are a desk and inkwell, and a book. At the upper right, two books are placed in front of the white sphere. Above is a bright yellow sun beneath branches of trees. Long-time Chicago Mayor Richard Daley died in 1976. A strong supporter of Chicago art projects. The hand at the left holding a candle is a tribute to him.
In the fourth panel a large bird flies in the sky above the cityscape. Two multicolored trees are place at the upper corners of the panel. The Statue of Liberty stands tall at the left side of the panel with the torch of freedom in her hand. Lady Liberty was a gift from France for America’s Centennial, and Chagall’s “American Window” was his gift to America for its Bicentennial.
The third window displays the significance of religious freedom in America. Across the top of panel five is a theater curtain. Centered in the panel is a standing performer whose legs are visible, while the upper body is surrounded in a swirl of green, yellow, and blue patterns in Chagall’s favorite floral bouquet shape. Emerging from the bouquet is a singer. At the left, a performer in a harlequin costume holds a mask. The harlequin costume relates to another of Chagall’s favorite images, the circus. At the lower right a figure carries a Menorah. In the sixth panel, six figures dressed in European native costumes gayly dance and play tambourines. At the upper left, a large circle, made up of a mixture of bright shapes and colors, lends the scene a sense of happiness, joy, and well-being. The city of Chicago stretches out below.
The final stained-glass project undertaken by Chagall was the design of eight windows for St Stephen’s Church, Mainz, Germany. Mainz remained the largest center of European Jewry for centuries. Originally reluctant to create the windows, Chagall finally agreed to take on the project as a commentary on the reconciliation between Germany and the Jews, and between Jews and Christians. Chagall was 91 when he accepted the commission, and he worked on it until his death in 1985. The windows were completed by Charles Marq, Chagall’s colleague.
“For me a stained-glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light.” (Chagall)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.