Romance, Myth, and Color in Chagall’s Late Lithographs
The influential Jewish painter Marc Chagall’s original lithographs, created between 1954 and 1980, showcase his mature style. Some depict religious stories, while others use the fanciful, surreal, mytho-poetic imagery for which the artist is so beloved.
Chagall was revered both for representing Jews in the arts during an era of profound and violent anti-Semitism in Europe, and for his creative use of line, form, and color. Picasso is said to have once remarked, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”
Chagall’s use of color in his lithographs is stunning. In heavily worked images such as his 1975 print L’Oranger (“The Orange Tree”), scumbled black lines are layered with swathes of pale green, turquoise, yellow, orange, and rosy pinks and reds. He depicts a young couple and their dog, standing in the sun by an orange tree bearing fruit, which may be suggestive of their romantic and sexual fruitfulness. Gardens were a recurring theme for the artist, as can be seen in Le Jardin de Pomone (“The Garden of Pomona”) (1968). He portrays the mythical garden cultivated by the Roman deity of fruitful abundance; the Edenic scene, in its draughtsman-like line drawing, is composed around a bird at the center, soaring through the air. Around the garden, people cavort and gather food or flowers; a man rides a horse, a woman tends to her child. The beauty of the space is complemented by the rich embroidery of rapid gestural marks that Chagall used to build the image.
The natural world was also used for symbolic effect in many of his artworks. His faux-naïve rendering of horses and birds in prints such as Le Cheval Vert (1973) and Les Monstres de Notre-Dame (1954), or the spectral bull featured in Saint-Germain des Prés (1954), with their anthropomorphic smiles, gives an animal essence to the spaces occupied by humans. In this way they continue the kinds of themes Chagall first began to explore when he experimented with Fauvism, which emphasized the primal nature of art and color. These romantic images of love between people—or in the case of Saint-Germain des Prés, a woman in love with art, literature, and Paris—are indicative of the love for life that imbued Chagall’s work.
Even domestic scenes burst with colorful floral forms. In Le Chevalet aux Fleurs (1976), an artist sits at his easel with a beautiful young sitter. The studio is brightened by a single spot of bold color in the form of flowers in a vase, near the center of the image. It is connected visually with the clothes worn by the artist’s model, and by the trees beyond a window in the background. Small spots of color on his palette point to the artist’s aim at translating and including the world’s beauty in his art, even though he exists (and is depicted) only in grays. Chagall’s work seeks such transcendence and connection to the verdant world around us.