How Marc Chagall painted his own birthday - inspired by the love and gifts of his muse Bella
To mark the painter’s date of birth, 6 July, we look back to an early anniversary celebrated in this lovely painting
The painter Marc Chagall might have been a leading figure in the early Modernist movement, yet he was born on this day, July 6, in 1887, in the relatively parochial Belorussian city of Vitebsk.
The tension between the traditional ways of Eastern European Jewish communities and the wider sweep of early 20th century art history was a constant presence in his vibrant canvases — works that Chagall pushed beyond simple cultural or art historical artifacts with his ebullient painting style.
“He concerns himself with both tragedy and joy,” Monica Bohm-Duchen writes in the introduction to our Art & Ideas book on the artist. “His most characteristic work possesses a joie de vivre, a playful wit and the sense of the fantastical rarely found in the art of any period. Also unusual is the unabashed celebration of romantic love to be found in so much of his work.”
All these elements are there in this painting, The Birthday, from 1915. It's a beautiful, beguiling picture, better appreciated with a little back-story from our book.
“When Chagall married Bella on 25 July 1915, her socially superior family was still expressing grave misgivings about the match,” writes Bohm-Duchen. “During this year his art concerned itself above all with their union, simultaneously sensual and transcendent. ‘I had only to open my window, and blue air, love and flowers entered with her. Dressed all in white or in black, she has long been flying over my canvases guiding my art.’
“Bella’s own memoirs, written thirty-five years after their first meeting, are if anything more fervent still. In First Encounter, she recalls how she had managed, with great difficulty, to discover Marc’s date of birth, and visited him on that day, carrying food and flowers in embroidered shawls. The shawls were draped around the room, and Chagall began to paint. The results were pretty orgasmic in their nature.
‘Spurts of red, blue, white, black. Suddenly you tear me from the earth, you yourself take off from one foot. You rise, you stretch your limbs, you float up to the ceiling. You head turns about and you make mine turn. You brush my ear and murmur.’
“The resulting painting, The Birthday of 1915, provides a vivid testimony to the gravity-defying self sufficiency of their partnership.” And it's a partnership that we can continue to take delight in, a century after this work's creation. For more on this artist buy our authoritative Art & Ideas book, or our introductory Colour Library edition.