Marc Chagall’s relationship with his wife, Bella, and his paintings occasioned by their dating and marriage have been widely written about. Yet very little space has been devoted to the birth of their only child, Ida, in 1916, and to the paintings in which Chagall featured his baby daughter. If this topic is addressed at all, grievous misconceptions about this period in the life of the artist often dominate. “The birth … of Bella and Marc’s first and only child,” writes Monica Bohm-Duchen in her 1998 art biography of Chagall, “seems to have cemented their domestic bliss … and finds expression in a number of charming … renditions of family life with a young child.” Another art critic, Jacob Baal-Teshuva, echoes the sentiment by writing that after “his daughter Ida was born… [t]he Chagalls were over the moon.” In addition to being terrible clichés, these statements could not be any further from the truth. There was very little “bliss” of any kind that year in Russia, which was in the throes of hunger and political unrest resulting from the never-ending World War I. Furthermore, parental bliss, as opposed to marital bliss, was much harder for Chagall to attain, as he himself honestly admitted in his autobiographical writings. Chagall and Ida eventually would develop a very close relationship, especially after Bella’s untimely death in New York in 1944, so the biographers are right to emphasize their enduring father-daughter bond. But that is not how it all started and we do need to understand Chagall’s emotional struggles with becoming a parent in order to have a fuller portrait of the artist and of the paintings that he created 100 years ago.
Ida Chagall was born May 18 in Petrograd, where her parents had moved from their native Vitebsk in the autumn of 1915, after their summer wedding and honeymoon. In lieu of Marc’s required military service (he was officially drafted in 1915), Bella’s brother arranged a job for him in the War Economy Bureau. The severe restrictions against Jews residing in big cities were relaxed during the war years, making it possible for the Chagalls to live in Petrograd legally. They could not, however, escape the general anti-Jewish violence raging in the country. Many unhappy citizens, soldiers among them, found the customary outlet for their frustration by attacking Jews. Chagall claimed that he himself barely escaped being killed one night in such a pogrom and saw other Jews being murdered: “Gunshots. Bodies falling into the water. I run home.”
Ida was named after Chagall’s mother, Feiga-Ita, who had passed away several months before. The circumstances of his mother’s death, as well as the exact date, are largely unknown. The scarcity of information about it is in fact so profound that even some Chagall biographers, like Sidney Alexander, somehow erroneously assumed that she had been still alive at the start of the Nazi invasion. In Chagall’s letters there are mentions of Feiga-Ita being sick but not of her demise. There are reasons to believe that Chagall was more likely already in Petrograd when her death occurred, for he does state in his autobiography that he was not in Vitebsk to witness it: “I couldn’t have endured it. … I would have seen … my mother’s face, her dead face, all white. … She loved me so dearly.” At the time of Ida’s birth the pain of the loss was still obviously both fresh and sharp.
“Forgive me,” Chagall would write in the early version of his autobiography, around 1921, addressing himself to his daughter, “for not mentioning you sooner and not coming to mother in the hospital until four days after you were born. A shame. I thought of a boy and it turned out the opposite … and at night, when you screamed for no reason, I hurled you in the bed. … It’s terrible.” To be shattered that his firstborn was not a male, and to take it as a personal failure, was, of course, very traditional of the otherwise rather untraditional Chagall. In My Life, the published version of his autobiography, Chagall further elaborated on the experience of having a child, but here he already dropped any mention of his original disappointment about the baby’s gender: “She yelled so loud I couldn’t keep from dumping her furiously on her bed. ‘Shut up!’ I can’t stand children’s piercing cries. It’s frightful! In short, I am not paternal. People will say I’m a monster. I’m losing their respect. What’s the use of writing all that?”
It did not help that Ida was constantly hungry. The year, after all, was 1916, when the food situation in Petrograd—because of the catastrophically deteriorating economy of the war years and the increasing difficulty with transportation to this northwestern corner of the vast country—was becoming grimmer by the day. It caused bread riots, many of which would then erupt into anti-Jewish pogroms. Bella was apparently not producing much breast milk, probably due to her own poor diet, while commercial milk was very hard to come by. Now and then the Chagalls reportedly used the services of a milk nurse who came to their wealthy neighbors’, the family of Jewish lawyer Grigory Goldberg, whose wife also had just had a baby. Yet that was obviously not enough and the desperate parents tried to fool the child by giving her sugared water, which Ida vehemently refused.
Their living quarters in Petrograd were so crammed, especially now that they had a baby, that Chagall had no room for painting. He had brought from Vitebsk 60 paintings, which were shown a month before Ida was born at his solo exhibition organized by his friend Nadezhda Dobychina at her Petrograd gallery. Among them was The Birthday (1915), an intimate portrait (now at MoMA) of him and Bella as the newlyweds, with Marc, his body afloat, bestowing a kiss on Bella’s lips as she, holding the flowers he just gave her, appears about to take off as well. When summer came, the family went to a dacha not far from Vitebsk, around Liozno, where Chagall’s parents were originally from and where his grandparents still lived. They went there to make sure that Ida could have milk, they all could improve their health by eating the fruits and vegetables that still grew there in abundance, and so that Chagall could paint.
And paint he did, often on paper and cardboard because there was not enough canvas. In one of the paintings from that summer we see Bella greedily eating strawberries, gathered from the garden in sufficient quantities to fill three large plates, no doubt trying to compensate for the lack of vitamins suffered in wartime Petrograd. Ida, with her face largely blurred, looks on.
The summer dacha life seems to have been, indeed, somewhat closer to the “bliss” his biographers allude to than the months in Petrograd that preceded it. It was also, most likely, very poignant for Chagall, still mourning the loss of his own mother, to be painting a new family relationship between a mother and a child. And yet, unlike the earlier paintings of himself and Bella, Chagall is never in the picture in these works from 1916. The absence is rather conspicuous. Chagall had a tendency to use absences of what might have been expected as statements of ambivalence. The first painting he created after Ida was born was Lilies of the Valley, now in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It depicts a large floral arrangement of the earliest spring flowers to appear in Petrograd which, like Ida, came to life in May. Two large pink ribbons are fastened to the container. The flowers are festive (and, in real life, very fragrant) but the baby herself is nowhere to be seen. Instead, on the wall, Chagall included a portrait of his recently deceased mother whose name the girl inherited. Almost 20 years later, when Chagall sought to mark Ida’s wedding, which was hastily—and against her wishes—arranged following an unwanted pregnancy and abortion, he would paint an empty Betrothed’s Chair (in Orthodox Jewish weddings, the bride greets female guests in a separate room while sitting on a throne-like chair). The painting featured again white flowers, now roses, in pots and vases as well as a garland of them on the chair—which was covered, in a bitter irony perhaps, with the virginal white cloth—but no bride. Instead, there was a painting on the wall of his and Bella’s own newlywed bliss. Chagall’s absence in the paintings following Ida’s birth likewise speaks of ambivalence; in this case, probably, stemming from not just a disappointment that she was a girl but also from jealousy and resentment. After all, he now had to share the affection and attentions of his beautiful lover and muse with someone else.
In Chagall’s 1916 painting of Bella and Ida near a window, they appear to need just each other, perfectly complete as a unit and closed to the outsiders, including the father-artist.
Another remarkable painting from that summer is Bathing of a Baby, which now resides in the State Historical and Architectural Museum in Pskov, Russia.
It is on the surface more full of color and vibrancy than the rest; even the baby’s face appears a bit more defined than in the other paintings. Yet Bella is so absorbed in her motherly duties as to look totally unaware of—or, worse, indifferent to—being painted, something not encountered in the painting that preceded Ida’s birth.
Even a year later, the child still remains largely an enigma; when she is mostly by herself, with her mother barely visible in the garden, one can hardly distinguish her doll-like presence from the other objects in the room. She does seem to be looking in the general direction of the artist but may also be just staring at something on the table.
During this time, Chagall did try to act more “paternal” or at least to offer parental advice. He was appalled, for example, by seeing Ida wrapped like a mummy: “A newborn babe is not a fragile vase. My wife wrapped her from head to foot so that she would not take cold. I said to her: ‘I think you should at least leave her mouth free, a human being needs air.’” He wrote in his autobiography that it was not until he had a dream months later, in which “a little bitch bit our Idochka,” that his paternal heart finally melted and then filled to the brim with true love, pity, and desire to shelter his child from all ills.
Chagall finished the first known painting to include the three of them together in 1917. In Bella with a White Collar, the huge figure of Bella dwarfs both the husband (as we may assume the adult there to be, even though this is not a typical Chagall self-portrait) and the daughter. Here she is firmly grounded rather than flying with Marc in the skies over Vitebsk yet her head still reaches the celestial sphere. Bella is therefore presented as the goddess of their entire household, nourishing and protecting husband and daughter alike, and Chagall appears now resigned to share her with Ida.
Bella with a White Collar is, of course, a very well-known painting, as are the paintings of exclusively Bella and Marc during roughly the same period, whether it is The Birthday or The Promenade (1917-18) and Over the Town (1918). The paintings with Ida as a baby, on the other hand, are reproduced or cited much less often. There may be several reasons for that, including their more subdued colors, less fantastical nature, more primitive art supplies used during wartime, or just the physical location of the works themselves (two are in small museums in Russia; the other two are in private collections). But the main explanation, it seems to me, lies in the fact that the story in them is as blurred and uncertain as Ida’s features. Chagall knew very well how he felt about Bella and their magic together. It took him a long time, however, to fall in love with his baby daughter and to stop viewing her as primarily a rival for Bella’s time and affection and a screaming impediment to his marital bliss.
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Galya Diment is professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Washington, Seattle.