From that time onward, Chagall’s work would incorporate not only memories of his native Vitebsk, featuring folkloric figures of the violin and his recurrent alter-ego of the rooster, but the potent influence of his adopted hometown and iconic Parisian landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre Dame (see fig. 1). Notre-Dame presents a radiant tribute to the metropolis favored by so many artists throughout history. Like Delacroix’s monumental and patriotic ode to France, Liberty Leading the People, Chagall’s bold use of color, resonant blues and reds and triumphant focus on French symbols celebrate the great city’s history (see fig. 2).
As one of the most recognizable feats of Western architecture, the cathedral must have seemed to Chagall an unwavering symbol of both personal and national resilience. Begun in 1163 A.D. on the grounds of a former Gallo-Roman temple, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was constructed over the course of numerous campaigns which resulted in the addition of the massive Gothic towers, various flying buttresses and the famed rose windows—which would later inspire Chagall in his own glasswork (see fig. 3)—as well as the addition of the nineteenth-century ornamented spire. Having born witness to the founding and modernization of France and countless political orders, the centuries-old cathedral has escaped numerous incidences of near-destruction and continues to watch over Paris to this day. Despite the devastation of the most recent fire, the cathedral remains largely intact and steadfast, a testament not only to medieval craftsmanship but to the unwavering spirit of the city of light.
Perhaps more personal than political, Notre-Dame asserts a lyrical tableau with the incomparable cathedral at center, symbolizing the grandeur of French history, its culture at large and the primacy of the city in the artist’s mind and heart. The present work arises from the period just after Chagall’s return to France after a prolonged exile in the Unites States during World War II. Though the artist eventually settled in Vence in the South of France (not far from Matisse and Picasso), the peripatetic Chagall would frequently visit Paris, taking in the atmosphere and admiring the city’s landmarks as emblems of rebirth in post-war Europe. These symbols would proliferate his dream-like landscapes in the following years, often alongside elements of his native Vitebsk, which had been destroyed during the war.
At the fore of this composition, a Madonna-like figure holds a newly born child to her bosom and is lovingly joined to a bouquet-bearing man at lower center. The rooster, symbolizing Chagall’s own virility and ardor, watches over the couple at right. Behind the figures at right is a quiet row of houses receding into the distance and recalling the artist’s village of Vitebsk. Balancing the composition is the great columned Panthéon which hovers to the left of Notre Dame under a luminous sun. The Roman-inspired edifice, once a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, serves as the final resting place for the nation's greatest creative, philosophical and scientific minds including Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Marie Curie, and bears a wealth of decorative murals by eminent French artists. Chagall’s varying use of warm yellows, oranges and reds builds visual vignettes within the composition, with the soft brushwork accentuating the dual qualities of nostalgia and reverie.
The narratives of destruction, rebirth and resilience linked to these cities parallel Chagall’s personal life as well, as the abrupt end of his relationship with Virginia Haggard in 1952 closed a chapter in the artist’s life. Shortly thereafter, however, the artist embarked upon what would become a lifelong romance with Valentina “Vava” Brodsky, who came from a similar Russian Jewish background. The two wed just a few months after meeting, leading thereafter to a richer, more effulgent phase in the artist’s life and work. Reinvigorated by the new relationship, Chagall’s canvases suddenly filled with color and abounded with images of flowers and devoted couples, often against an inventive backdrop inspired by Paris. “The Paris of which I dreamed in America,” Chagall once stated, “I rediscovered enriched by new life, as if I had to be born again, dry my tears and start crying again. Absence, war, suffering were all needed for that to awaken in me and become the frame for my thoughts and my life. But that is only possible for one who can keep his roots. To keep the earth on one’s roots and find another earth, that is a real miracle” (quoted in F. Meyer, op. cit., p. 529).
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