During World War II, Chagall and his wife, Bella, took refuge in America, living most of the time in New York City. They they planned to return to France in late 1944, but a few days before their departure Bella fell ill. She was taken to a local hospital, but unfortunately she contracted a viral infection that could not be treated. She died on September 2. "Bella's death was a dreadful loss for Chagall. With her a world disappeared and for months he was unable to work." (F. Meyer, op. cit., p. 466)
Chagall stayed in American until 1948, living in a small cottage in High Falls, a town in upstate New York. Many of his works reflect the melancholy he felt over the death of his wife. Chagall finally returned to France in August, 1948. His return "meant an end of years spent in isolation; now that he was near Paris again he contacted friends old and new." The present painting was done shortly after his return to France. Its title of "The New Year" may signify Chagall's new beginning in France. The figure in the foreground holding an ax symbolizes death and refers to Bella's passing. The tall clock looming on the left side stands for the healing passage of time, and the mother and child in the center are emblematic of rebirth. Chagall's return to France marks the beginning of a happier and more productive period in his career.