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Chagall's "The Birthday" shows two lovers floating in an apartment, kissing

A decade ago, my wife and I took the Amtrak from D.C. to New York to celebrate our first wedding anniversary with a visit to MoMA. It had been a hard year. The economy had crashed. The magazine we worked for had folded and with it the future we’d imagined for ourselves. Unable to make rent, we had moved back in with family. We were fortunate, but we were feeling like failures. The honeymoon was over in more ways than one.

Unemployment had not forestalled our vows so much as set them in motion. It was as if the car had sped off before we’d had the chance to shut the door. You assume a certain continuity of experience before and after exchanging vows, but in a year’s time the ground beneath us had shifted dramatically, perhaps irrevocably, and we weren’t sure what we were going to do.

From the start, museums had been central to our relationship. On our impromptu first date, in the minutes before it closed, Emily had taken me to the Smithsonian to see James Hampton’s magisterial Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. I was a southerner newly arrived in the capital. She was a local reappraising her old haunts. Art gave rise to ideas, triggered memories, raised big questions, which we’d try to articulate to each other before moving on to other rooms.

Now, however, as we wandered through MoMA on a Saturday morning in the middle of the recession, we didn’t have much to say. The trip we’d fashioned as a break from the job hunt back in Washington only served as a reminder of how things had changed. Looking at paintings suddenly felt like piddling, a day trip to Manhattan like the height of irresponsibility. Joblessness, whatever else, is a first-rate killjoy. It turns everything else into a guilty waste.

Silent, standoffish, we drifted through galleries, casting sidelong glances at brilliant paintings that should have moved us and would have moved us were it not for the immoveable strain of our dread. Then we rounded a corner up on one of the top floors and there on the wall was an image of two lovers levitating in an apartment. They had been stunned into a kind of composed rapture. They looked as if they might float right out the window. It was Marc Chagall’s The Birthday, and we were transfixed.

The painting depicts Chagall and Bella, the painter’s soon-to-be bride, on the occasion of the Chagall’s twenty-eighth birthday. Chagall, ever the enigma, had concealed his birthdate but Bella had done some sleuthing. He was alone in his little Vitebsk apartment, not expecting visitors, perhaps worrying over Bella’s parents, who opposed their wealthy daughter’s engagement to the poor artist, when she surprised him with cake, flowers, and colorful shawls with which to decorate his spartan digs.

Into the bleakness, Bella had smuggled beauty; into the quarantine, intimacy and regard. So striking was the surprise, according to Bella’s remembrance, that Chagall began working on The Birthday at once, as if the moment were too precious, too meaningful to let pass. “I suddenly felt as if I were taking off,” Bella would later recount. “You too were poised on one leg, as if the little room could no longer contain you. You soared up to the ceiling. Your head turned down to mine and turned mine up to you, brushing against my ear and whispering something.”

Chagall had started painting luftmenschen, Yiddish for “air-people
,” during a stay in Paris. In his memoir, My Life, he described the creative breakthrough as an answered prayer. “I want to see a new world,” he called out to heaven. “As if in reply,” he writes, “the town seems to snap apart, like the strings of a violin, and all the inhabitants, leaving their usual places, begin to walk above the earth.”

In The Birthday, however, levity is not an enlightened vision of reality so much as the fruit of a very rooted love. What gives the painting its power, what distinguishes it from other amatory icons in modern art, are the forces it holds in tension: worry and winsomeness, control and abandon, exigency and grace. Chagall floats kite-like over Bella. His body is limp. His eyes are shut tight. As if aware of the trust in his acquiescence, Bella rises to meet him but her eyes stay open. Her foot rides the floor.

Chagall completed The Birthday shortly before his wedding day, but he would reprise the image on canvas after canvas. In the ensuing decades, as Russia and Europe became hostile to Jewish artists and Chagall’s and Bella’s life together became a life on the run, the memory functioned as a kind of anchor. It gave a reorienting tug against the angry century. It was a surprise that kept surprising.     

Looking at The Birthday didn’t solve our problems. I’m not sure art ever really does. In fact, more upheaval was on the horizon: double shifts, cross-country moves, a child. But when I think of that fraught season, its stresses and doubts, confusions and dreads, I remember the heavy levity of Chagall’s surprised lovers. They said that the surest way forward was together, that the best place to find resolve for the future was in the past. We weren’t born aloft but for a saving, still-ramifying moment we were steady, unafraid again, free.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Drew Bratcher

Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.

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