Chichikov (again) in the Hands of Chagall

If you look closely at the illustration, you can see the mouse in the doorway like an agreeable host, holding the door ajar. The subject, however, is the meeting between the two men, whose names give this etching by Marc Chagall its title. They are none other than Nikolay Gogol’s Manilov and Chichikov: the former, a landowner, whom the latter is trying to swindle. (See previous post.)

In 1923 Chagall, the renowned Russian Jewish artist who fell into a melting pot of his own making and came out French, returned to Paris at the age of thirty-six from Moscow via Berlin, exhausted from the poverty and the violence endemic to his country’s revolutionary struggle. He had first lived in the French capital at the age of twenty-three to advance his study of art, and became immediately seduced by the city’s vibrancy and freedom. But in 1914 he would go back to the place that would artistically inspire him for his whole life, his provincial hometown of Vitebsk, Belarus, to be reunited with his beloved Bella. It would take nine years—the Great War in the meantime—before he, with Bella, now his wife, and their young daughter, could gladly resume living in Paris. He was surprised to discover during his absence he had gained prominence as a painter. Still he needed to find a modicum of financial security after having a couple of setbacks due to his naïveté in the business of art. So he welcomed the tap on the shoulder from Ambroise Vollard—the famed French publisher and art dealer who happened to have launched Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso with their first solo shows; about whom Picasso once remarked, “looked like a giant ape, yet ‘the most beautiful woman never had her portrait painted, drawn or engraved any oftener than Vollard—by Cézanne, Renoir, Rouault, Bonnard, Forain, almost everybody… He had the vanity of a woman, that man.’”[1]

Vollard wanted to commission Chagall for a set of etchings for one of his ‘deluxe’ livres de peintre. He proposed the children’s book, Countess Ségur’s General Durakin, for illustration. Chagall suggested instead Dead Souls by Gogol, the Russian writer with whom he most closely identified: the shared affinity for ‘satire and pity,’ ‘fantasy and reality,’ and ‘playfulness and fatalism.’ Vollard agreed. Chagall set about working on the project that would result in a series of 107 etchings. Observed the poet Ivan Goll, upon a visit to his friend, “You can come to him whenever you like—Marc sits there like a cobbler hammering away at his copper plates, an upright craftsman of God. His wife, who ministers to his art as a nurse ministers to a sick man’s fever, reads the chapter[s] aloud to him.”[2]

[1] Jackie Wullschläger, Chagall: A Biography, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

Other sources: Jonathan Wilson, Marc Chagall (Jewish Encounters), 2007; MoMA; University of Michigan Museum of Art.

(Image Manilov and Tchitchikov, from Gogol’s Dead Souls, reproduced for non-commercial purposes only.)

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