Through the Win­dow: Views of Marc Cha­gal­l’s Life and Art

Barb Rosen­stock; Mary Grand­Pré , illus.
  • Review
By – September 24, 2018

In late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Viteb­sk, Belarus, down­trod­den work­ers strug­gle, par­ents wor­ry, rab­bis try to hold the com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er, and Moishe Sha­gall — the gift­ed boy who would become Marc Cha­gall — begins to paint. With poet­ic text and dra­mat­ic pic­tures, author Barb Rosen­stock and illus­tra­tor Mary Grand­Pré trans­late the artist’s con­vic­tion and ver­sa­til­i­ty into a com­pelling tale about the tri­umph of imagination.

Chagall’s suc­cess may have seemed as improb­a­ble as a fid­dler play­ing on a rooftop. Rosen­stock pays trib­ute to this image of embat­tled East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ry in the book’s first pages: A parade of plod­ding oxen, wan­der­ing goats, and flap­ping hens./ Neigh­bors squab­ble, rab­bis bless, a bow­legged fid­dler plays on a rooftop.” In the author’s note, she cites Chagall’s own auto­bi­og­ra­phy as a source for the rhyth­mic lan­guage she uses to nar­rate his life. 

If Rosenstock’s chal­lenge is to present Cha­gall as an inspired genius but also a ded­i­cat­ed crafts­man, GrandPré’s is to draw in a style that reflects Chagall’s own with­out mere­ly imi­tat­ing his famous paint­ings. Her pic­tures blend fan­ta­sy and real­ism, and par­al­lel the com­plex fig­ure that Rosen­stock depicts. An illus­tra­tion depicts young Moishe look­ing through his win­dow, observ­ing the chaos of peo­ple and ani­mals. The expres­sion on his face is not one of frus­tra­tion, but of dream­like con­cen­tra­tion; what­ev­er he sees, he turns to art. 

As a young man, Moishe rejects the future that oth­ers see for him — as a butch­er, bak­er, [or] black­smith” — but Rosen­stock steers clear of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty by avoid­ing a depic­tion of Cha­gall as an angry young man reined in by tra­di­tion. An illus­tra­tion reflects these dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties that await him if he doesn’t suc­ceed as an artist: a wood­en dwelling with baked goods in one win­dow, dif­fer­ent cuts of meat in anoth­er, and a pair of hors­es under the roof. On the oppo­site page, an intense Moishe sketch­es his vil­lage in black ink, while streams of imag­ined col­or flow from his pic­ture and frame his face. His anx­ious father sits in the back­ground, arms crossed in res­ig­na­tion. Rosen­stock describes father and son as opposed, but not angry with each oth­er. Instead, she empha­sizes the immov­able force of Chagall’s art: The pow­er of pic­tures. He draws and eras­es, dreams in color/​while Papa worries.”

Peo­ple and his­to­ry con­tin­ue to be shown through the lens of Chagall’s win­dows: his beloved wife, Bel­la, the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, his years in America. 

Even­tu­al­ly Cha­gall expands his vision into sculp­ture and stained glass, work­ing on a mon­u­men­tal scale with teams of crafts­men. Rosen­stock and Grand­Pré high­light the demo­c­ra­t­ic ele­ment of this pub­lic art. Chil­dren gaze at the stun­ning blue pan­els that embody many of the artist’s life­long pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: myth­i­cal ani­mals, music, moth­ers, and chil­dren. The author’s note includes a quote by Cha­gall that sums up his approach to the world: In our life there is a sin­gle col­or, as on an artist’s palette … It is the col­or of love.”

The author alludes to his­tor­i­cal events in ogn­ly gen­er­al terms, but fur­ther details and addi­tion­al resources are pro­vid­ed at the book’s conclusion. 

Through the Win­dow is par­tic­u­lar­ly rec­om­mend­ed for read­ers ages 5 – 10, but the poet­ic text and vibrant illus­tra­tions would also appeal to old­er readers.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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