Marc Chagall’s Powerful Portraits: Part 1

Chagalll_Jew in White

Marc Chagall, Jew in Black and White, 1914. Oil on cardboard laid down on canvas, 39 3/4 x 31 1/2 in. Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Marc Chagall’s three monumental portraits from 1914, Jew in Red, Jew in Black and White, and Jew in Green, are on  view in Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland

Born and raised by an observant Jewish family near Vitebsk, Russia (now Belarus), Marc Chagall began his artistic training in St. Petersburg, then traveled to Paris, where he met artists who introduced him to Fauvism, Cubism, and other modern art movements. Chagall blended these trends with Russian and Jewish imagery and fantastical symbols drawn from childhood memories. During what was meant to be a short trip to visit family in 1914, the outbreak of World War I forced Chagall to remain in Russia. In Vitebsk, he painted portraits of beggars and itinerant Hasidic rabbis who were invited into his family’s home. Chagall described the sitter in Jew in Black and White as a beggar with “gray hair, sullen expression, a sack on his back.”

Chagall dressed him as a rabbi, placing his father’s tallit (prayer shawl) over the man’s shoulders and wrapping tefillins (used during morning prayer) around his head and left arm. His right hand holds the tzitzit (tassel of the prayer shawl). Jew in Black and White and Jew in Red were exhibited in Chagall’s 1933 retrospective at the Kunsthalle Basel, which collector Karl Im Obersteg, through his association with the artist, helped to organize. This painting is the first of two later versions in separate collections.


Congenial Spirits: Chagall and Bonnard (Off the Walls)

As the galleries are closed to the public today, curator Elsa Smithgall took the opportunity to bring out the Phillips’s monumental The Terrace (1918) by Pierre Bonnard alongside other paintings by the artist in our permanent collection. Bonnard’s work is presented in conversation with this dreamy painting by Marc Chagall. You can visit them beginning tomorrow, but for now here’s an off-the-wall preview.

Stay tuned for a series of spotlight talks about Chagall’s painting at noon every Thursday in January. The spotlights anticipate a theater program here at the Phillips on January 31, which will preview the world premiere of a play created by Double Edge Theatre that is inspired by Chagall’s work—The Grand Parade (of the Twentieth Century)—on stage at Arena February 6–10.

(clockwise from top) Marc Chagall's The Dream (1939) and Pierre Bonnard's The Terrace (1918) take their positions and wait to be hung. Bonnard's The Open Window (1921) and The Checkered Tablecloth (c. 1925) will soon hang side by side. Bonnard's Interior With Boy (1910) and Bowl of Cherries (1920) await placement.

(clockwise from top) Marc Chagall’s The Dream (1939) and Pierre Bonnard’s The Terrace (1918) take their positions and wait to be hung. Bonnard’s The Open Window (1921) and The Checkered Tablecloth (c. 1925) will soon hang side by side. Bonnard’s Interior With Boy (1910) and Bowl of Cherries (1920) await placement.


The International Art and Language Soiree hosted at the Phillips on Thursday, August 16 in collaboration with the International Club of DC provided an incredible atmosphere of cultural infusion. The Tryst at the Phillips café was the perfect meeting place for all who attended, including experienced foreign language speakers and beginners looking to try something new. The native speakers and conversation facilitators led ongoing discussions about their cultures and the variety of works featured at the Phillips produced by artists of their respective cultural backgrounds. For example, the Russian patrons discussed Chagall and Rothko, the Spanish patrons discussed Picasso and Goya, and the French patrons discussed Renoir and Cézanne.

The mood was light and fun, comfortable and relaxed, making it easy to approach any language table and give it a try. Much to my surprise, that is exactly what many of the attendees did. I watched in awe as individuals floated between the Russian table and the German table, the Spanish table and the Italian table. There was minimal emphasis on proficiency in a single language and more emphasis on a friendly interaction with something new. I felt my confidence building as I observed the excitement of all the attendees in this culturally charged environment. Maybe this week I’ll attempt to recall some Spanish from my high school days, or just sit in on the French discussion to assess how much of it I can understand with my minimal background in the romance languages. Either way, the art and language soiree at The Phillips Collection provides an irresistibly welcoming vibe that encourages everyone to join the fun.

To get a feel for how these language and art soirees unfold, check out this video, courtesy of the International Club of DC, which was recorded the night I attended.

Laura McNeil, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures