The Wedding Candles, 1945 - by Marc Chagall

On September 2, 1944, Bella died at Cranberry Lake in the north of New York State of a virus infection which at first had not seemed at all serious. She had been the intimate companion of Chagall's life and work since his youth. Her death came unexpectedly, although on reflection Chagall felt he had recognized early signs of a quiet detachment, and Bella herself, as if urged by some dark foreboding, had concluded her literary work and put it in order with unusual haste. In 1935 she had set herself the task of recording the memories of her youth in her home town of Vitebsk and of her first encounter with Chagall. She had written them down in Yiddish, the language of her childhood. Both the books she left behind - Burning Lights and First Encounter - are radiant with the glow of memory of Jewish feast days in the cosy family circle and of the Eastern Jewish faith which imbued the reality of childhood with holy legends.

Bella's death was the heaviest blow Chagall could have suffered. It happened just when news was coming through of the liberation of Paris, which had stirred hopes in both their hearts of being able to return home soon. Hope and consolation now collapsed. Painting was out of the question for the time being. Bella's last words had been about her "notebooks," so in the months following her death, Chagall assisted their daughter Ida with the French translation of Burning Lights and wrote a preface lamenting "Basinka, Bellotschka from the mountain of Vitebsk, who is reflected in the Dvina together with the clouds and the trees and the houses."

It was not until the spring of 1945 that Chagall returned to painting. In his studio he came across a large picture, 98 inches wide, which he had painted in 1933. Entitled The Harlequins, it showed Bella as a half-length figure wearing festive clothes, in the midst of a variety of circus folk. A vaulting acrobat was presenting her with a transparent globe showing a picture of Vitebsk, while to the right a wedding procession made its way into the circus world. This picture Chagall now cut through the middle. From the left half he made the poignant painting Around Her (now in the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris), in which the magical globe with the vision of Vitebsk occupies the center, with a weeping, mournful figure of Bella by its side. The right half became The Wedding Candles, the title referring to Bella's book and its elevated mood.

Only the winged, goat-headed figure and the bridal pair have been taken over from the original picture. All the rest, above all the color and the mood, has undergone a complete change. The picture became one of twilight and nightfall. In a strangely overcast, dusky, hazy atmosphere, the bridal procession moves out of the Russian village, in front of the setting sun. An immense chandelier with burning candles hangs above the bridal canopy and carves in the nocturnal blue an aureole of greenish, ghostly light. It is in keeping with the dim color haze from which the bride emerges with her entourage, and it lights up a bare place across which straggle some village musicians with startled faces, playing their instruments separately. To the left the zone of nocturnal blue opens up. While the lone musicians move off toward the lower right, the small white figure of the bride proceeds toward the zone of midnight blue, into which she is led by a pair of lovers reclining on a cock's back; there the winged creature with the goat's head is waiting, the welcoming drink of night in its hand. Above, a celestial horn player descends from the blue, his gesture seeming to drive off the earthly musicians and at the same time to show the white bride her way.