A love story is always a good read, especially if it’s such a magical and touching history as that of Bella and Marc Chagall. Unfortunately there is a sad ending, so be prepared.
Love at First Sight
They fell for each other in 1909 in Saint Petersburg. Bella Rosenfeld, was the 19-year-old daughter of a wealthy Russian jeweler. Chagall, seven years her senior, was a painter still attending art school. They both said it was love at the first sight. Rosenfeld, who was to become a talented writer, described how Chagall looked on their first encounter:
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.
Bella Rosenfeld, quoted in “Head over heels in love: Marc and Bella Chagall’s spectacular romance”, The Guardian.
Chagall also wrote about this meeting in My Life, his autobiography:
Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me.
Marc Chagall, My Life.
In 1911, Chagall left for Paris to study art from the leading artists of his day, leaving Rosenfeld in Russia. However, he didn’t speak French and the beginnings were very tough as he
felt like fleeing back to Russia, as he daydreamed while he painted, about the riches of Russian folklore, his Hasidic experiences, his family, and especially Bella.
Marc Chagall, My Life.
He stayed in Paris until 1914 when he couldn’t last any longer without his fiancée, who was still in Vitebsk. “He thought about her day and night”, writes Baal-Teshuva, the artist’s biographer. Chagall, afraid of losing Rosenfeld, accepted an invitation from an art dealer in Berlin to exhibit his work. His aim was to later continue on to Belarus and marry Rosenfeld, and then return with her to Paris.
The next challenge was to convince Rosenfeld’s parents that he would be a suitable husband for their daughter. He had to demonstrate that despite being just a painter from a poor family he would be able to support her. They married in 1915 and Rosenfeld quickly became Chagall’s primary muse who featured on his canvases for the rest of his life. In 1916 they had a daughter, Ida, however that didn’t stop Rosenfeld from acting as her husband’s manager. After the end of WWI, they moved to France where Chagall could spread his painterly wings.
So Much Love
The strength of their love is documented in his paintings. Very often Chagall depicted himself and Rosenfeld flying over various cities. It’s as if the love they shared was stronger than gravity itself.
The years passed and WWII broke out. With the help of their daughter, the couple escaped to the United States. Yet, suddenly, Rosenfeld died. She had a viral infection which went untreated due to the wartime shortage of medicine. The grieving Chagall stopped all work for many months. When he began creating again, his first pictures were concerned with preserving Rosenfeld’s memory. Moreover, he kept her notebook which he decorated with illustrations for the next 20 years! He filled the blank pages with movingly colorful portraits of them together.