The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
When Chagall painted Les trois cierges (“The Three Candles”) in 1939, he could never have imagined that this lyrically romantic and nostalgic evocation of his life and loves, describing people, creatures, and places—fanciful and real—would play an accessory role in a miraculous true-life drama of survival and deliverance, in twin odysseys from the Old World to the New.
The first journey is the departure of Chagall and his wife Bella, fraught with peril at nearly every turn, from Europe to America following the collapse of France in the German blitzkrieg of May-June 1940. Within months Nazi authorities in the occupied zone and the fascist puppet regime in Vichy began to impose Hitler’s insidious racial program, with the aim to persecute and ultimately eliminate the 340,000 Jews then living in France. Foreign-born Jews, such as Chagall and his family, were their first target. Like many, Chagall and Bella were at first slow to appreciate the gravity of this threat, until they realized they were living on borrowed time. They finally decided they must leave France, possessing only the thinnest thread of hope that perhaps someday they might return to their adopted land.
Joining this exodus to safety and freedom were the artist’s daughter Ida and her husband Michel Rapaport, who left at a later date, bringing with them to New York a large, heavy crate containing Les trois cierges and numerous other unframed and un-stretched canvases, saving them from almost certain loss and destruction.
Written into the history of this painting is a tale of two cities—Paris and New York. Chagall included Les trois cierges in his exhibition at La Galerie Mai during January-February 1940. Europe had been at war for nearly five months, but the western front remained eerily quiet—the “drôle de guerre”—until the Germans unleashed their onslaught in May 1940. The Galerie Mai installation marked the last time Chagall’s paintings could be seen in Paris for the next five years, until Galerie de Berri mounted a show in October 1945, five months following the end of the war.
Having safely survived its trans-Atlantic voyage across U-boat-infested waters, Les trois cierges was subsequently seen in New York, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery during November-December 1941, in “the overwhelming and historic show that revealed Chagall to the United States,” as Jean Leymarie declared in the catalogue for the exhibition Matisse held in 1977 to commemorate the 1941 event (preface to exh. cat., op. cit., 1977).
It is unclear if Chagall began Les trois cierges before or after the French declaration of war on 3 September 1939, and precisely when he completed it. Franz Meyer’s dating of the canvas suggests the artist may have been working on it as early as 1938 (op. cit., 1964). Chagall certainly conceived the painting as pre-war tensions were coming to a head. He and many Russian expatriates residing in France understood the signing of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on 23 August 1939 to be the signal that Hitler would soon strike in Eastern Europe. In light of these events, Les trois cierges emerges not as a dreamy, escapist fantasy, but is instead a deeply felt, desperate but hopeful prayer for peace, as well as Chagall’s resolute affirmation of his individual identity, values, and memories within the ancient traditions of his Jewish faith.
The symbolic elements in Les trois cierges pertain to Jewish ritual and lore, signifying the celebration of the Sabbath, and the traditional wedding ceremony, which Chagall embellished—as was his custom—with his own idiosyncratic touches. The three tall tapers are Shabbat candles, one for each member of the artist’s family — Bella, Ida, and Chagall himself. Around the time Chagall painted Les trois cierges, Bella was writing her collection of stories, in Yiddish, about growing up in Vitebsk, later translated and published as Lumières allumées (“Burning Lights”), illustrated with Chagall’s drawings. “Mother lit the candles one after the other with a match,” Bella wrote in the story “Sabbath”. “Slowly, three times she circled the flames with her hands as if embracing her own heart. The troubles of the week melted with the candles” (Burning Lights, New York, 1983, p. 30).
The bride and groom in Les trois cierges are a youthful Bella and Chagall, having been transported back in time to Vitebsk, their native town in Byelorussia, where they married in 1915. A trellis of leaves, festooned with a garland of white roses, serves as their chuppah, the ceremonial wedding canopy. A village fiddler and a harlequin clarinetist serenade the bride and groom with bittersweet melodies, while angels escort the couple, bearing them aloft as if on a magic carpet, returning them to this cherished moment in time.
Only days before Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Chagall and his family moved to a farm house in Saint-Dyé-sur-Loire. As the scope of hostilities widened, the artist sought safety further from Paris. On 10 May 1940, the very day Germany invaded the Low Countries and France, Chagall purchased a house in the hillside town of Gordes, in the Vaucluse region of Provence, in the hope he and his family could there spend the duration of the war. The quick defeat and surrender of France came as a shock, but because Gordes was in the unoccupied zone administered by Petain’s collaborationist government in Vichy, there was not yet any German presence in the area.
On 3 October 1940 the Vichy government announced its first Statut des Juifs, forbidding Jews to engage in certain occupations, and curtailing their civil rights. On the next day a law made provision for moving foreign Jews into internment camps. Chagall had hoped that the naturalized French citizenship he had obtained in 1937 for himself and his family would protect them from harm. In early April 1941, however, he learned the Vichy regime was moving to revoke the rights of citizenship for those who had been naturalized after 1936. Hiram Bingham, the American vice-consul in Marseille, and Varian Fry of the American Rescue Committee met with Chagall on 8 March in Gordes, urging him to emigrate. With the designs of the Vichy leadership having become all too apparent, the artist realized there was no choice but to leave France. Having closed their home in Gordes, with the large crate of paintings in tow, Chagall and his family arrived on 9 April 1941 in Marseille, where they anxiously awaited exit papers that would permit their passage, via Lisbon, to America.
Bingham and Fry already possessed a guarantee of security from Solomon R. Guggenheim and a promise of sponsorship from Alfred H. Barr, Jr. The Fund for Jewish Refugee Writers agreed to finance the crossing to America. Chagall, however, insisted he would not leave until he and his family had obtained French re-entry visas, as assurance of being able to return when the war ended. This difficult process would delay their departure. Chagall soon learned there was no time to lose; after only a few days in Marseille, he was detained during a round-up of Jewish refugees in the hotels. Bella called Fry, who obtained Chagall’s release by threatening to publicize the artist’s plight in the international press. As proof of Chagall’s importance, Fry produced the diploma the artist received when he won a Carnegie Prize in 1939 for the painting Les fiancés.
Even then, Chagall decided they would leave only on 7 May—seven was his lucky number. On the morning of that very day, as Chagall and his wife boarded the train that would take them to Madrid and finally Lisbon, the police conducted another sweep of the refugee-packed hotels, detaining 1,500, of whom only several hundred were later released. The rest were deported to forced labor camps elsewhere in France and North Africa.
Before leaving France, Chagall shipped his paintings to Spain, through his friend the French ambassador Pietri, but the crate became stuck in Madrid customs. Ida and Michel Rapaport remained behind in Marseille, safe for the time being, until 16 June when they too were stripped of their French citizenship. Ida managed to obtain an exit visa; Michel, however, because he was of military age, was ineligible. Having recently served in French army intelligence, he prevailed upon his former superiors to assign him a false posting in the French colony of Martinique. Spanish authorities detained Michel when he and Ida crossed into Spain, but once again the French ambassador proved helpful, and Michel continued on his way. Ida used her contacts to get the crate of her father’s paintings out of customs and on to Lisbon.
Chagall and Bella had been waiting in Lisbon since 11 May, anxious to hear from their daughter and son-in-law, and to receive news of the paintings. With none forthcoming, in mid-June they embarked on the next available vessel, the Portuguese steamship Pinto Basto, and on the 21st arrived in New York. Pierre Matisse greeted them at the dock. It was not until early September that they learned Ida, Michel, and the crate had sailed from Lisbon and were on their way to New York.
Ida and Michel’s passage on the S.S. Navemare was a hellish experience. An old cargo and coal carrier, the ship was recently refitted with bunks to carry 1,200 passengers, all refugees from various parts of Europe, many of whom were Jews, including some concentration camp survivors. Living conditions on board were terrible. The crew was unruly and brutish, there were frequent fights; the women had to be protected from being raped. An outbreak of typhoid fever claimed sixteen lives; the victims’ bodies were thrown into the sea. The zig-zag passage had lasted 40 days when the ship finally docked in Brooklyn on 12 September 1941. Stowed in the ship’s hold, the passengers’ luggage—their sole belongings—became waterlogged and had to be discarded. Ida disembarked ill and exhausted, but the crate of Chagall’s paintings, with Les trois cierges inside, survived intact and undamaged. The Navemare, however, subsequently met an unlucky end—the ship was torpedoed and sunk as it returned to Europe.
Just before the war, Pierre Matisse met with Chagall in Paris in the hope of arranging an exhibition in New York. Nothing came of this plan, but to Matisse, the son of France’s greatest living native-born artist, Chagall accorded his confidence and respect. He remembered that Matisse, then just beginning his career, worked for the Galerie Barbazanges-Hodebert, which held the first exhibition of Chagall’s work following the artist’s return to Paris from the Soviet Union in 1924. Matisse quickly arranged during the fall of 1941 for seventeen of the newly arrived paintings from France to be re-stretched and framed, and, together with four loans from American collections, he mounted in his gallery an introductory overview of Chagall’s painting between 1910 and 1941. The exhibition ran from 25 November to 13 December. The notices were excellent, but the sales slow in coming—on 7 December the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and America entered the war.