The themes and memories of love flooded Chagall in 1945, as he mourned the sudden, tragic death of his beloved wife, Bella, whom he lost in the fall of 1944. "I am very miserable at this time," he wrote in early 1945. "I have lost the one who was everything to me--my eyes and my soul" (in B. Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, Stanford, 2004, p. 551). Nostalgia for the Old Russia he and Bella had known together, amplified against the backdrop of the war that ravaged their native Vitebsk and witnessed the persecution of the Jewish people, grew stronger in the lonesome melancholy of his exile in America. His concept of love as an empowering and restorative corrective to the human losses of life, at once intimately personal and cosmopolitan, is sensitively voiced in a letter Chagall wrote in the 1940s:
"For me life divides itself into two parts--Life and death--and for me whatever is not an inner truth is death. But maybe--to be a little more concrete--or, if you prefer, more truthful, one must use the word 'love,' because there is the true color, not only in art, but in life. Without love an art is not art, and a life is not life. Without love we see all the chaos into which art and life periodically descend, in which I fear they find themselves at this moment. The great crisis of art and of life is a crisis of Love" (in op. cit., pp. 561-62).
Chagall's words resonate in the Cheval rouge: Fin de journée, a dreamlike painting that reminisces over the symbols of his past, cycling back over familiar motifs and memorializing Bella, the embodiment of his ideal love. "Direct observation gives way to memory," Franz Meyer has observed of the paintings begun in 1945, after nine months of depressed inactivity, and here the memories of Bella and his Russian history resurface, collecting on canvas the images of a past life (in Marc Chagall, New York, 1964, p. 470). The rooster and the horse, the small village house and the still life of flowers are all objects from his youth in Vitebsk, where he met Bella, tenderly evoked here in a maternal image of devotional care. The outline of an adolescent face, perhaps Chagall's own, before a fence and Bella's shadowed, doubled face bespeak a sentimental wistfulness for their shared youth, for what must have seemed the pastoral simplicity of their courtship, when Bella climbed in and out of windows to be with her lover. Their experience of love was one of shared intensity that seemed not to falter or fade over nearly three decades of marriage, and Chagall's adoration for Bella grew still stronger in the years after her passing, crystallizing around her memory the sum of their eternal moments together. At the metaphoric "end of the day," it was in remembrance of Bella, his muse, mother, and manager in one, that Chagall resumed painting, keeping her spirit, and with it the memories of Old Russia and their deeply romantic love, alive in his imagination.