Chasing Marc Chagall

“If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; If from the head, almost nothing.”  Marc Chagall

It is late September and I am back in France for the third time this year. The summer tourist crowd has thinned a bit but the roses are still blooming. Cyclists are out in force, taking advantage of the crisp mornings and lighter traffic. Best of all, apples are in season, so the Tarte Tatin is killer-good (not that it isn’t always, but this time of year I don’t have to make ugly dessert choices; the Tarte is simply not to be denied).

You can have Paris in the spring.  I prefer fall.  It is a delightful (and delicious) time to be in France.

Unless, of course, the year is 1940 and you are a modernist painter of Jewish descent.

In October of 1940, Marc Chagall probably wasn’t paying much attention to the fall charms of his adopted country. Chagall was holed up near Marseilles, along with Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Vladimir Nabokov and many other important artists and writers, trying desperately to escape the Nazis. The Vichy government in Southern France was busily rounding up intellectuals on Hitler’s “most-hated” list to be shipped off to concentration camps. Marc Chagall’s name was on the list.

Thanks to the American journalist Varian Fry, the Chagalls escaped into Spain, eventually boarding a boat in Lisbon, Portugal, bound for America. Fry’s heroism — largely unsung — saved a man who would, in time, steal the world’s heart with his dreamy, mystical paintings about life as a self-proclaimed “wandering Jew”.

After the war, Chagall returned and made France home-base for his long and wildly productive career.  And its all still herethe places he lived, the bars he hung out in, his deeply emotional paintings and vivid stained glass — just waiting for the occasional groupie to appreciate it.

In fact, if you love Marc Chagall, consider an “in-the footsteps” tour through France, tracing Chagall’s haunts and viewing some of his most intriguing creations…

Begin in Paris:  Paris is the logical place to begin the chase, since this is where Chagall began his life in France.  Chagall was inspired by Paris (“No academy could have given me all I discovered by getting my teeth into…Paris”), but he also missed his fiance, Bella, and was haunted by images of  his home town Vitebsk, Russia (“a strange town, an unhappy town…”).  Perhaps this is where he began the life-long habit of painting his dreamy inner world, a landscape of personal metaphors that were mostly unfathomable to everyone except Chagall himself. He was furiously productive during this time and spent many nights painting until dawn at a shared studio in Montparnasse. The studio is now a part of the Bourdelle Museum (18 Rue Antoine Bourdelle, Paris, 15th arrondissement) and is open to the public (10 to 6 daily except Mondays).

Chagall lived, and of course played, nearby.  In 1912, long before his work was well-known to the masses, Chagall bunked at The Beehive, a space where struggling artists worked and slept.  The building is no longer open to the public, but you can walk past (2 Passage de Dantzig) on your way to visit some of the cafes frequented by Chagall and his famous contemporaries.

One of Chagall’s favorite haunts, Cafe de Flore, is just down the way at the corner of Rue St Benoit and St-Germain/Montparnasse.  He was a regular here, along with Apollinaire and Picasso.  Further along, another favorite, La Coupole still displays paintings created by Chagall and some of his contemporaries during this period.  Marc Chagall celebrated his last birthday here in 1984 at table 73.

Ironically, there isn’t a large body of Chagall’s work to see in Paris. The Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris has about half a dozen Chagalls in the permanent collection, including The Acrobat and two paintings from the very early years (Russia, Asses and Others and Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine).  But, Paris is home to one of Chagall’s most eye-popping creations: the ceiling of the Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier).  Consisting of 6 panels, Chagall’s work is a tribute to 13 operas and composers.  Chagall loved the theater and reportedly agonized over the ceiling; it took him a full year to complete.  In the end, the ceiling was a fitting tribute to artists he admired, and to a way of creating art that he very much believed in: “Mozart never composed anything, ever!  He copied what was written on his soul.”

[Travel Tip: If budget allows, treat yourself to a stay at the Hotel Meurice.  At the very least, stop in for a drink in the bar! From 1940 — when Chagall escaped — until Paris was liberated by the Allies, the hotel was the headquarters of the Nazi’s and the scene of the famous phone call from Hitler asking “Is Paris burning?” as the Allies advanced on the city.  This famous line was later used as the title of a book and movie, both featuring the Hotel Meurice prominently.]

East to Reims and Metz: Chagall was a prolific artist across many mediums, once noting that “I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment”.  Stained glass seems to have loved him.  Just east of Paris, you can see two beautiful examples: The cathedrals at Reims and Metz.  Stand in front of these windows as the light from outside shifts with the sun and you can almost hear the artist waxing poetic about the combination of two great passions, stained glass and the Bible: “To me, stained glass is the transparent wall between my heart and the world’s…It must come alive through the light it receives. The Bible is light already, and stained glass should make this obvious through grace and simplicity.” Chagall was 70 years old when he began working with glass!

[Travel Tip: The next stop is quite a drive.  If you spend most of one day traveling to Reims and then Metz, consider stopping over for the night about 3 hours south in the Burgundy wine region.  I highly recommend the charming and budget-friendly B&B, Les Tilleuls in Epernay-sous-Gevrey].

South to Provence: The largest collection of Chagalls in the world is housed at the Chagall museum in Nice.  Most of the works in the permanent collection here are stories from the Bible (Genesis, Exodus and Song of Songs).  These works were very important to Chagall and he supervised the placement of each piece in the museum, as well as the design of the garden.  The museum also houses a large stained glass window in Chagall’s signature blues. My favorite part of the museum is the Song of Songs room.  Chagall’s series of paintings tells the sexually charged story of two lovers, which can also be seen as an esoteric interpretation of the balance of male and female energy. Appropriately, this series is done in soft pinks and romantic reds.

[Travel Tip: Take a Bible along and sit on the comfortable benches throughout the museum as you read the stories illustrated in the paintings. The allegorical messages in these stories come alive beneath Chagall’s vibrant palette and quirky symbols.)

The lingering spirit of Chagall in France is perhaps most palpable just down the road from Nice, in St. Paul de Vance.  Chagall lived near here after the war, along with many of his contemporaries, including Picasso and Matisse.  The boys of modern art often hung out at La Colombe d’Or, where you can still book a lovely room for the night.  If you stay at La Colombe d’Or, be sure to spend a late night drinking in the bar, soaking in the ambiance of the place, which is decorated with original photos of Chagall and his buddies enjoying themselves in the very same room.  Wait for the place to empty out and quiet down a bit.  Perhaps in the silence, you will be lucky enough to catch whispers of good natured ribbing between friends and rivals (“That Picasso is a genius…its a shame he doesn’t paint”) and the faint tinkle of laughter from another space in time.

St Paul de Vence is a lovely, walled city and well-worth a stroll through the narrow streets where Chagall and his homies lived and painted.  There are several reproductions of paintings done by Chagall during his years there, dotted along the routes where he liked to stroll (contact the tourist office for walking maps). On the far side of the town there is a little hillside cemetery.  Marc Chagall is buried there.  His grave is almost always covered with charms, tokens of remembrance, and even hand-written messages to the much-loved painter of love (“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.”)

Of course, you don’t really have to come to France to experience Chagall (but its a great excuse for a visit!).  His work can be seen around the world.  For years I’ve been looking for my favorite Chagall, a lesser known work that is listed as part of an anonymous “private collection.”  The painting, Nude Over Vitebsk, depicts Chagall’s beloved first wife, Bella, floating over his home town.  The painful longing for his home and loved one, so evident in the painting, has always resonated with me, but particularly this year as I’ve been away on my travels.  Recently I discovered the current whereabouts of the painting.  It turns out as I sit in France writing about Chagall, my favorite piece is on display not far from my childhood home in Texas.

[Chasing Chagall Across France Map: A list of all the places included in this post, plus a few extras!]



  1. Colleen M says

    Love Chagall! We literally stumbled into a cathedral in Zurich that has the most spectacular stained glass windows designed by Chagall. The church is called “Fraumunster.” Sometimes the unplanned surprise is part of the wonder of travel. :) And I would love to do the footsteps of Chagall trip too.


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