Wintertime magic can mean many things. For many lovers, it can be an end to the waiting game. During the holiday season, he (or she) popped the question, and now you’re getting married! Let the wedding planning begin!
These (often frenzied) preparations include a determined search for the right location, the right ambiance, the right rings, the right dress. Often a bride already knows exactly how she wants to look on her wedding day, if only she can find that perfect dress and its accessories.
But almost certainly she will not be expecting that her wedding dress will inspire some of the world’s greatest art. Or that her husband will continually re-imagine it as he shares the joy of their marriage in oil paint on canvas.
Yet that is exactly what happened to Russian Bella Rosenfeld-Chagall when, four years after their nuptials on the rainy evening of July 25, 1915, her painter-husband Marc Chagall stunned the art world with his Double Portrait with Wine Glass, a portrait of the couple in wedding garb that, nearly a century later, is considered “the most lyrical representation of connubial bliss ever put to canvas.”
How did Bella’s wedding dress translate onto her husband’s canvases? Double Portrait (1917) makes it long-sleeved and décolleté, worn over purple undergarments that match her fan, while Marc, resplendent in red jacket and green shirt, rides on her shoulders and waves a wine glass.
But in Wedding (1918), Bella’s dress is primly high-collared, her veil long and her hand gloved, in keeping with Marc’s conventional suit and hat. In a distant tree branch, a fiddler plays, while hovering above and embracing the newlyweds is the red-winged figure of Ida, their little daughter, born in 1916.
What kind of wedding united such a blissfully happy couple? What lessons can we draw from the Chagalls?
The first was the depth, strength and confidence of their love. They first met when Bella was fourteen, Marc twenty-one. It was love at first sight, and it lasted forever.
Marc “has come and broken the calmness of my days,” Bella wrote. “His eyes, they were so blue as the sky oblong, like almonds. The face of this boy lives inside me as my second ego, his voice is in my ears.”
Marc rhapsodized, “Her silence is mine. Her eyes, mine. I feel she has known me always, my childhood, my present life, my future; as if she were watching over me, divining my innermost being, though this is the first time I have seen her. I knew this is she, my wife.”
But beautiful Bella was a mere adolescent, Marc a struggling artist, and they came from vastly different social and economic classes. The six years it took them to overcome these problems only deepened their love and strengthened their commitment to each other.
Marc was the oldest of nine children, whose hardworking father, did “hellish work” as a herring monger while his mother sold groceries from their home. Bella, however, the youngest daughter of a wealthy man who owned three jewellery stores, was well-educated and raised in luxury.
The Rosenfelds, Marc wrote, “prepared enormous cakes, apple, cheese, poppy-seed, at the sight of which I would have fainted. And at breakfast they served mounds of those cakes which everyone fell upon furiously, in a frenzy of gluttony.” The Chagalls, in contrast, made do with “a simple meal like a still life à la Chardin.” And unlike the Rosenfelds, who ate poultry daily, the Chagalls served it only on the eve of the Day of Atonement.
Bella’s mother ridiculed her daughter’s lover. “It looks to me as if he even puts rouge on his cheeks. What sort of a husband will he make, that boy as pink-cheeked as a girl? He’ll never know how to earn his living. You’ll starve with him, my daughter. … And what will everybody say?”
The Rosenfelds’ disapproval reinforced Chagall’s determination to make a name for himself as an artist, so that he could support a family. Thanks to a Russian patron, Chagall spent several years in art-rich Paris, studying and painting until he accumulated an impressive portfolio.
At the same time he thought “night and day” of Bella and, always faithful to her, refrained from sampling Paris’ fleshly delights. Instead, he focused on mastering his art and establishing himself as a painter and selling some paintings.
His persistence and Bella’s loyalty paid off. In 1915, back home in Vitebsk, the Rosenfelds succumbed to his arguments that he would make Bella a good husband.
But the wedding arrangements suited only the Rosenfelds, who planned and paid for it. Marc arrived very late, and overheard guests gossiping about him – “Who is his father?” one snob wondered aloud – and he mocked how gluttonously they eyed the wedding feast.
As for the ceremony, the wise and crafty old rabbi rained down blessings – or “perhaps curses”? – until Chagall nearly fainted. “I became a hero of a traditional wedding ceremony under the wedding canopy exactly as it was in my pictures. I got benediction – all was done according to the traditions despite my objections,” he recalled wryly. He felt resentful, snubbed, yet supremely happy on this, “the most important night of my life.”
The wedding and its accoutrements – including the gown that came to symbolize their marriage – – were unimportant in themselves. What mattered was the romantic love, personal respect, deepest mutual commitment, shared values and unremitting hard work that enabled these extraordinary lovers to unite in an idyllic marriage that endured for twenty-nine years, until Bella’s death.