Read more on The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – A Timeline of the Extraordinary Love Story of Marc & Bella Chagall from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.
Many of Chagalls finest paintings feature Bella, his wife and muse. The couple first met by coincidence in Vitebsk, Belarus, their hometown, in the summer of 1909, when he was twenty-two and she was fourteen. The shock of a love at first sight, which grew to inspire such great works, is famously recorded in Marcs memoir My Life and in Bellas published notebooks First Encounter.
“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.
“I was surprised at his eyes; they were so blue as the sky … I’m lowering my eyes. Nobody is saying anything. We both feel our hearts beating” Bella Chagall
1887: Marc (Moise) Zakharovich Chagall is born to a working class Hasidic Jewish family in Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk (now Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire). At the time of his birth, Vitebsk’s population was about 66,000, half the population were Jewish.
1895: Bella Samoylovna Rosenfeld is born in Vitebsk to one of the richest Jewish families in the town, her father was a merchant and the family owned three jewellery shops. She was unusually given a wide education and was a very academic and musical child. She studied history, philosophy, literature & method acting.
1907: In Vitebsk Marc begins to study painting under Yehuda Pen, an artist, teacher and outstanding figure of the Jewish Renaissance in Russian and Belorussian art.
1909: Bella meets Marc and it was love at first sight! By now he is a penniless apprentice to Lon Bakst, the revolutionary stage designer and artist. But what does Marc have to offer Bella? He needs to prove himself to her and her family.
1914: Marcs first personal show opens in Berlin, then he returns to Bella in Vitebsk. Whilst in Berlin, he sends her a proposal by post, and a few weeks later receives a loving response. At the same time, World War I breaks out.
1915: Bella and Marc reunite and joyfully marry in Vitebsk. The couple travel to St Petersburg and start their life together.
1916: Their only child, a daughter, Ida, is born whilst Marc is away in Paris. Four weeks later he returns to see his child for the first time.
1918: Vitebsk comes under Soviet control and Marc turns down the offer of becoming Commissioner of Fine Art there, but the couple return to their home town and Marc sets up his own academy.
1920: The family move to Moscow, where Marc designs and paints stage dcor for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre. Bella reignites her love for theatre and acting whilst watching Marc at work.
1922: The couple flee the Marxist regime in the USSR, emigrating to Lithuania and on to Berlin.
1924: The couple move on to France where they begin to settle. Marc and Bella start to create more work and raise their daughter in the French countryside.
1939: World War II begins. Vitebsk is immediately occupied by the Nazis, with ghettos sprouting around the edges of the city. Its not long before the Jewish population is completely eradicated.
1941: Unaware of the Nazi Regimes influence on Vichy France, the couple are arrested in Marseille. They escape and manage to flee to Lisbon where they continue on to the United States.
1944: Bella died from sepsis following a viral infection while across the world, her beloved Vitebsk is destroyed. Marc is distraught and cannot paint for nine months, devoting himself instead to bringing life to Bellas writings under the title The Burning Lights. Written in France in 1939 this book is a love letter and commemoration of their native town. The title is an allusion to the festive candles that in their childhood had lit up the holidays of the Jewish year.
1945: The war comes to an end and Europe begins to rebuild itself following the destruction caused by the Nazis. Its thought that only 118 citizens survived in Vitebsk.
1948: Marc remains in the USA, speaking publicly about his emotions towards the events he witnessed from afar. Following selected exhibitions in galleries such as MoMA, Marc returns to Paris.
1950: Marc heads south and settles in the mountains of Provence. He begins working on ceramics and glassware, designing the famous windows of Metz Cathedral and the Hadassah Synagogue in Jerusalem.
1952: Marc marries Valentina Brodsky, who he was introduced to by his daughter.
1963: The Prime Minister of France commissions Marc to paint the ceiling of Palais Garnier in Paris. Critics lashed out at the idea of having a modernist painting designed by a Russian Jew installed in a national monument. However, the project went ahead and is still one of his most celebrated works today.
1985: After almost a century long journey through the most turbulent times in modern history, Marc passes away aged 97 at home in Saint Paul de Vence. His resting place is in the Catholic cemetery in Saint Paul de Vence.
A highly personal and unseen notebook came to light in 2011 when it was auctioned by Sothebys in New York from a private collection. After Bella died, the grieving Chagall kept her notebook, which he illustrated for the next 20 years, sketching on the blank pages and surrounding Bella’s writings with colourful and moving portraits of her and the two of them together. Justin Caldwell, the vice president of books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, said: “This book shows that Bella’s influence never went away it permeated everything he did even 20 years after her death.”