Past Collection Highlight - Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall Song of David

Marc Chagall was determined that his third, and most ambitious, illustration project-a French publication of the Old Testament-would express both the mystery and immediacy he had always experienced in the ancient texts. The Jewish patriarchs and prophets had been so real and present to Chagall, as a child in Russia, that he expected to meet them in the village street, cloaked and capped like the peasants he would later so vividly recall in his paintings and prints.

Such characters fittingly populated Chagall's etched illustrations of a Russian novel and French fables. But to make the Biblical figures and their struggles alive and relevant to 20th-century readers, Chagall needed to see the Holy Land. He began to visualize the series during a trip in 1931. Keen observations of the people and landscape would bring authenticity to Chagall's dreamlike vision. Chagall, whose work embraced the real and surreal, was uniquely suited to evoke a time when the realm of angels so closely touched the world of men.

This image of King David illustrates the unfathomable (to the modern mind) tangibility of God's relationship to the men of the Old Testament. A shaft of heavenly light pierces the darkness, opening a channel to heaven that directs David's material utterances to a God who seems to be listening from just beyond the edge of the page-within clear sight of David, and yet not visible to us. Chagall invests light, word, and the relationship between God and man with a substantial physicality that was lost to modern society and philosophies.

In this illustration of Samuel II:22, King David is presented as a poet of psalms. At his feet rests the harp with which the young David first charmed the faithless ruler he would eventually supplant. Arms wide, David sings thanks to God for delivering him from the many troubles and enemies he encountered during his rise from young court musician and cunning slayer of Goliath to triumphant King of Israel, establishing Jerusalem as capital and holy city.

Completion of Marc Chagall's series of 105 etchings illustrating the Old Testament was interrupted by the chaos of World War II. Chagall etched the first 66 copper plates during Hitler's rise to power, then fled France and turned his attention to other projects in the United States during the 1940s. When Chagall was finally able to resume work on the Bible series for a new publisher after the war, he had seen 20th-century powers replay the timeless cycles of suffering and endurance, despair and courage. In the 1950s, as Chagall etched this radiant and joyous portrait of the ancient King who unified Israel, a Jewish homeland had once again been established-this time as the modern state of Israel.

Karla Niehus
Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions