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A Chagall Mural for Brandeis University?

Jennifer Stern

This is a story that doesn’t end: It just falls off a cliff.

It’s hard to believe that anything about Marc Chagall, undoubtedly the most beloved and best-documented Jewish artist of all time, can be stubbornly unresolved. But I have yet to figure out: Did he make a mural for Brandeis University in the early 1960s? If so, what happened to it? If not, what went wrong?

I have worked in the Art History department at Brandeis for 25 years, and also studied at Brandeis as an undergraduate. In all my years of association with the university, I never heard a word about this mural – until Professor Emeritus Stephen Whitfield mentioned it to me a few months ago. We were having lunch on campus, and as we munched our sandwiches, Steve asked: “Did you know that Rapaporte Treasure Hall [an annex to the main library] was supposed to have a mural by Marc Chagall?”

After he watched me go through the stages of incredulity, Steve suggested making an appointment at the university archives. He had heard that they owned a folder of letters related to this mysterious — and apparently uncompleted — mural project.

First, though, I emailed some inquiries to the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis’s celebrated on-campus repository of modern and contemporary art. Could a Chagall mural that had once hung in Rapaporte be in storage at the Rose?

But the staff at the Rose were as surprised as I was. They had never heard of any Chagall mural made for the university.

So on to the archives.

The folder of letters Steve had mentioned did indeed exist, though it was disappointingly thin. I opened it up and started reading about the Chagall mural that apparently never was.

I quickly realized that the letters began in the middle of the story. The first, dated June 2, 1960, was written by the Public Affairs office to Brandeis’s founding president, Abram Sachar, who added a handwritten note: “Now that the Chagalls [Marc and his second wife, Vava] are actually here,” plans could go ahead with having camera crews from CBS news film Chagall on campus, as he visited the library and interacted with students.

But there was an obvious problem: The Fall 1959 issue of the journal “French News” (published by the French Embassy in New York) announced that Marc Chagall would arrive at Brandeis in January 1960 to serve as artist-in-residence. He would teach an undergraduate course and “execute a ceramic mural for a huge wall in the treasure room of Brandeis’s library…”

Yet the June 2 letter strongly suggests that this was Chagall’s first visit to campus. Sachar’s relief that the Chagalls are “actually here” — with an implication of “at long last” — is palpable.

Furthermore, a New York Times article from May 28, 1960 indicates that Chagall had only just arrived in the United States “this week” — four months after his Brandeis residency ostensibly began. And a letter written to Chagall by his friend John Nef on January 15, 1960 (published in Benjamin Harshav’s Marc Chagall and His Times), says: “It would have been quite imprudent, especially because of your flu, to come to Brandeis University in the middle of winter for a visit that would have been quite fatiguing.”

Only one conclusion seemed possible: Chagall had not actually done his residency at Brandeis, but had instead come to campus for the first time in June, in connection with receiving his honorary degree. (His June 1960 campus visit is well-documented, including in photographs.) Chagall was 72, and had apparently had a bad flu in late 1959 or early 1960. Presumably on the grounds of ill health, he did not fulfill his obligation to the university as artist-in-residence. (Brandeis still considers Chagall the first Jack and Lillian Poses Artist-in-Residence, as mentioned in numerous social media posts, since he was appointed to the position.)

The next letter in the folder, dated July 19, 1960, highlights an even graver problem. It was written to the Chagalls by President Abram Sachar, recalling how deeply he had enjoyed meeting them in June, during the “simcha week” they had spent together. But he then mentions the mural, asking if any progress has been made, and what he should tell the many people who are asking about it. He expresses his hope that “you will soon be developing the concept of the mural which we know will become a climactic work of art and will bring new dignity and importance to the art assets of this young University.”

It’s unclear how long Brandeis had been expecting Chagall to make a mural during his campus residency. The earliest reference seems to be from the September 1959 “Justice” (the Brandeis student newspaper), which refers to “a mural by Marc Chagall to be painted this year” for the new library. But by July 1960, after the conclusion of the promised residency, the mural not only remained unmade, but was still in its conceptual phases.

The ensuing letters document an increasingly frustrating situation. Some correspondence about the mural seems to be lost: There are gaps and references to letters that aren’t present. But they reveal the outline of the story.

On January 25, 1961 — a year after Chagall’s residency was supposed to begin — Sachar wrote to the Chagalls. He gives good news about the growing university, and says that “[h]ardly a week passes” without inquiries about the mural. “The Library is really crying out for its completion,” he writes, “because now that we know there is to be a Chagall mural on the wall, it appears as if nothing else could ever be there, and it is naked and bereft until the Chagall mural is part of it.”

Chagall quickly answered this letter (on January 31) — the only reply from him in the folder. He says that he remembers the 1960 honorary degree ceremony very fondly. But as to the mural: “If you have contact with God, pray to him that I will be able to make the ‘murals.’ I’m thinking about those large dimensions! Well, we will see!”

Chagall’s use of the plural “murals” (in quotation marks) is ambiguous. But his basic concern seems clear: The size of the wall and of the mural that would fill it.

Soon after receiving Chagall’s letter, Sachar wrote in a memorandum (February 8): “This letter from Marc Chagall tells us exactly nothing.”

On June 6, 1961, Sachar wrote to Chagall again: “...[O]ur thoughts are concentrated on the heroic mural that you promised in an order of priority for us. What can I say to many friends and admirers when they ask about the progress of the mural? It would bring joy to all of us if we knew that before next Commencement we could dedicate such a mural and it would illuminate not only the year ahead, but all the years to come. Please send us an encouraging word.”

But on July 25, David Rolbein from the Dean’s office wrote: “...[A] report I received this weekend re Chagall does not sound encouraging.” A representative from Hadassah had visited Chagall in France (he had recently completed stained glass windows for the Hadassah Medical Hospital in Jerusalem), and suggested that the Brandeis mural would surely be his next big project. But “[Chagall’s] response was indecisive, something along the lines of not being sure, and perhaps getting too old to undertake many more major projects.” Rolbein concluded: “This report, coupled with the evasive nature of his answers to…letters, would seem to leave the whole project on an extremely shaky foundation.”

Two days later (July 27), a potential solution was floated: Rather than having Chagall make the mural for Rapaporte in the library, he could make a smaller piece for a wall in the newly completed Rose Art Museum. The idea came from Max Abramovitz, architect of the new museum (and of other early buildings on the Brandeis campus), and a friend of the Chagalls. Rolbein writes, paraphrasing Abramovitz: “This would be an easier job to do because it will not be so high as the other and may calm Chagall who is worried about the enormity of the original job. Also, if Chagall is unhappy with Rapaporte as a location, he might like the Museum because it is a repository for art works rather than just an adjunct to a library.”

On August 11, President Sachar followed up to the Chagalls about the new proposal: “Perhaps the major scope of the mural that we have discussed has been an obstacle because its very magnitude may create hesitation on Marc’s part. Since both of you were here a beautiful art museum has been completed. It is perhaps one of Abramovitz’s most beautiful and imaginative creations. One of its walls is not nearly as large as the wall in the Treasure Hall…[Y]ou may wish to think in terms of a more modified mural, in terms of size. I make this suggestion only because we are so eager to have Marc begin.”

On August 25 came the first glimmer of good news. Sachar writes that a friend of Chagall’s has gotten a letter from the artist, inviting him to visit his studio to see “the progress made on the Brandeis Library Mural.” Apparently the alternative location at the Rose Art Museum has been dropped, and Chagall is now working on the library mural?

Optimism had not abated by November 29, 1961 when Sachar wrote to the Chagalls about the “news that you are deep in your work on the Mural for our Library.” He asks if Chagall might be able to “venture a time schedule” for its completion, “[f]or the mounting of the Mural in the Library would be a red letter day in the art world, and we would wish to prepare for it long in advance.”

Eight months later, in July 1962, these preparations had become more elaborate. The buzz of excitement combined with trepidation is palpable in the letters. The university was now planning a major Chagall retrospective at the Rose Art Museum for June of 1963. Sam Hunter, founding director of the Rose, wrote on July 16: “We have funds for a major Chagall show next June, but it would only make sense as an adjunct to the installation of the mural. So all depends on whether or not Chagall delivers.”

On July 27, Sachar wrote to Chagall expressing delight that “you have been working steadily on the mural that you have promised for the University and that you are now quite sure that it can be finished next spring.”

And that’s it.

No further letters. No mural. The Rose has no record of a Chagall exhibition in 1963.

What on earth happened?

Based on the letters, it seems possible that Chagall was going through a period of physical exhaustion. He had just finished the enormous Hadassah windows project, and had apparently been in poor health. Perhaps he was genuinely daunted by the scale of the Brandeis mural (it’s unclear from the letters how receptive he was to a smaller piece for the Rose Art Museum). But Chagall was far from finished with very large-scale projects. Between January and August of 1964, he produced 13 huge canvases for the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier in Paris. In 1966, he painted two enormous murals — “The Sources of Music” and “The Triumph of Music” — for the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. His America Windows for the Art Institute of Chicago were made in 1977 (with assistance from stained-glass maker, Charles Marq) when he was 90 years old. His powers were by no means spent.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Chagall simply wasn’t interested in the Brandeis project. Perhaps as a European who had spent only a short period in the United States during World War II, he didn’t fully grasp the significance of Brandeis for the American Jewish community. Or perhaps he was just overbooked with commissions and exhibitions.

None of this answers the most tantalizing questions of all: What was Chagall working on in 1962 that President Sachar and others believed was the Brandeis mural? If he really was deeply immersed in its creation, what went wrong? Why do the letters abruptly break off at a high point of optimism? Did the “Brandeis mural” that Chagall was apparently creating morph into something else? Was it the basis of a famous work that now hangs somewhere else? Or did he simply abandon it?

As a footnote, an entry in a 2022 Christie’s auction catalog did give me momentary pause: “The present work, Clown et cheval bleu [the piece being auctioned], was executed in 1960 in the United States, while Chagall was appointed as the first Jack I. Poses artist-in-residence at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. Chagall executed a ceramic mural in the new university library on the Waltham campus.” Was it possible that Chagall did make the mural, but somehow it has been lost? I wrote to the auction coordinator to ask why she included that sentence, but she didn’t reply. Chances are overwhelming that it was simply a mistake (perhaps she saw the 1959 “French News” article which refers to a ceramic mural at Brandeis, and assumed it had been completed). A Chagall mural isn’t easy to lose track of.

So this journey down the archival rabbit hole has, as yet, revealed no definitive answers. Sometimes the partial record of the archive only yields tantalizing questions and possibilities that serve as a reminder of how contingent our understanding of history is on whatever records happen to have survived. Even with a copiously documented figure like Chagall, mysteries can remain.

If readers can suggest further leads about the Chagall Brandeis mural, please write to In geveb at [email protected].

MLA STYLE
Stern, Jennifer. “A Chagall Mural for Brandeis University?.” In geveb, March 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/a-chagall-mural-for-brandeis-university.
CHICAGO STYLE
Stern, Jennifer. “A Chagall Mural for Brandeis University?.” In geveb (March 2024): Accessed Apr 24, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Stern

Jennifer A. Stern is a 1991 graduate of Brandeis University, and has worked in the Fine Arts Department at Brandeis since 1998.