Marc Chagall's 1909 Portraits of Women

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In 1909, Chagall painted the first known portrait of his future wife, Bella (Berta) Rosenfeld. Known as My Fiancée in Black Gloves, this painting is usually viewed as his expression of admiration and love for Bella, who, apparently, was then only fourteen years old. When it is placed next to Chagall's Self-Portrait with Brushes, from the same year, the two paintings, although not looking towards each other, seem to create a double portrait that recalls similar creations in the great art of the past. Two additional portraits of women, also painted in 1909 and misleadingly known as portraits of the artist's sisters, actually represent two other female friends of Chagall's from that time, Thea Brachman and Bella Germont, both of them talented, university-educated young women. Juxtaposed with the portraits of Bella Rosenfeld and Chagall's self-portrait, they tell much about the young artist's differing attitudes towards each woman, their artistic and intellectual influence upon him, his ambivalences, and the questioning of his own role in these relationships. They also pay tribute to artists whose works interested Chagall at the time, such as Rembrandt, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse, and they show his appreciation for Russian Symbolism and the art of icons. Several additional drawings and sketches that accompany the portraits of Bella Rosenfeld reveal further aspects of their relationship: Chagall's feeling of inferiority towards the rich and educated Bella, who was not a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in 1909, but rather a twenty-year-old Moscow student of history, literature and philosophy. The new understanding of their relationship points towards his resentment and desire, her reserve and aloofness, and finally to why they do not look at each other in the final versions of their portraits.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)131-159
JournalNashim: a journal of Jewish women's studies and gender issues
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2007


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