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Marc Chagall, architect-on-demand, advice-without-strings

I am at LACMA’s Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage exhibit. Having seen it twice already, today I intend to focus on my favorite piece — Marc Chagall’s Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers — to take time, go deeper, and study it intently.

Who is this virtuoso holding his palette and paint brushes as if they were a violin and a bow? Why is he looking up? Is he kneeling? His face appears both tormented and exalted. Why seven fingers? He is in his studio working — why is he all dressed up, with a boutonniere in his lapel?

There’s a sense of divine presence in the painting. Is he praying?

It seems to me that the self-portrait is a self-exploration. A rendering of someone piously aspiring to delve into his creative potential, to affirm his calling as a painter. Hence, seven fingers — a sure way to do a good job. The artist is floating on air, hovering above the floor in a heightened state of intense emotion — in sheer ecstasy or bliss. As if in prayer, he is filled with joy and enthusiasm. He is dressed meticulously — taking his mission very seriously. A palette in a shape of a bird or a violin is his instrument — a way to give structure to his deepest feelings. Art is his music — a process through which he aims to accomplish a divine purpose.

This is Chagall’s very first self-portrait; painted in 1912-13, it depicts the precise moment of appealing for encouragement and approval.

The Old Testament forbade idolatry and was interpreted by Jews as an injunction against painting pictures. Chagall wrote: “No picture hung on our walls, not even a print… Until 1906, in all the years I spent in Vitebsk, I had never seen a single picture.”

In 1906, 19 years old at the time, Chagall was permitted to receive lessons from a portraitist in his home town, Vitebsk, a small provincial community with 60,000 inhabitants, over half of them Jews. Chagall recalled: “My uncle is too frightened to give me his hand. He has heard that I’m a painter. What if I wanted to paint him? God forbids such things. Sin.”

Chagall, Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers

In his Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers Marc Chagall longs to be equated with violinists revered in the land of his birth.

Chagall, Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers

Musicians are the ones held in high esteem in Jewish culture. His sister Lisa and brother David play a mandolin (or bandura); they conform to the Chassidic belief that music is a supreme channel through which to achieve communion with God. Chagall, on the other hand, choses another way and now he is all alone. While revealing a defiant essence, he is pleading for understanding, redemption. He is being judged.

Chagall is torn. He dares to assert a unique point of view while faithfully continuing the work passed on to him by his ancestors. The painting incorporates Hebrew lettering as if Chagall is expressing the Jewish ideal. He is asking for permission to articulate a vision of his own, to describe a dream world where fragments of personal reality defy gravity — singing and dancing.

I admire and am inspired by the virtuoso’s patience and engagement. Comparing Marc Chagall of 1954 (Self-Portrait with Violin) and of 1913 (Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers) on the cover image, I see continuity and cohesion. The artist succeeds; he matures staying on his path. Celebrating his joyously deep relationship with both music and painting is a life-long endeavor. Would you agree? Please share your own opinion in comments below or write to me here.


  • Sterna Citron
    December 19, 2017

    I love how you found Marc Chagall’s self-portrait so inspirational! And your explanation of it is very lyrical and touching. I especially liked the phrase “give structure to his deepest feelings.”
    One thing I would point out: The Old Testament (the Torah) does not forbid paintings. All the old Hebrew bibles were gorgeously illustrated. The ancient synagogues had beautiful mosaic floors depicting all kinds of scenes. The absence of paintings in Chagall’s parents’ home meant either they were too poor or just not into those kinds of things.

    • Alla DIY Ally
      December 20, 2017

      Thank you very much for your comment, Sterna!

  • Mia S Kazovsky
    December 20, 2017

    What a great post! Something I noticed in Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers, are the paintings within this painting. I think that Marc Chagall is trying to depict all of the things that are important to him within one canvas. I think that he is dressed up because he wants to be taken seriously and to appear professional. Maybe he wasn’t wearing such a formal jacket while actually paining, but the outfit gives him an air of self respect that raggedy painting clothes would not. I think the extra two fingers symbolize a fantasy self: the most productive and capable version of himself. Maybe with seven fingers, one could employ some of them to paint while the others would play music. What do you think?

    • Alla DIY Ally
      December 20, 2017

      I think these are great observations! The outfit speaks about him being in Paris as well. Hebrew letters say “Paris” and “Russia.” He belongs to both worlds. I like your explanation of seven fingers. It is also a reference to an Yiddish folk expression “Mit alle zibn finger,” (with all seven fingers), which means “working as fast and as hard as possible”.

      • Mia S Kazovsky
        December 21, 2017

        Also very worth noting, the Eiffel Tower is painted in one of the background paintings!

        • Alla DIY Ally
          December 22, 2017

          Hence, Hebrew letters!! Love you!

  • December 21, 2017

    Alla, great post!!! I love Chagall, his Jewish heritage is almost in all his paintings with references to traditional folktales. I remember myself standing in front of “I and the village” in MoMA in NY, thinking how nostalgic and magical the painting is, like a fairy tale, which bring me to native jewish community. Later in the day , I refreshed my memories about Chagall and remember looking at “Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers” and explanation, that being true to himself he refers to the folk expression “with all seven fingers” (working fast and hard). I really like the way you described Chagall’s vision and his inspiration. It was a pleasure to read. Thank you.

    • Alla DIY Ally
      December 21, 2017

      Irina!!!! Thank you very much for such a lovely comment. I’m glad to hear that this post stirred up some good memories for you.

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