Monday, September 19, 2011

Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers: The Life of Marc Chagall in Verse - a review

Lewis, J. Patrick and Jane Yolen. 2011. Self Portrait with Seven Fingers: The Life of Marc Chagall in Verse. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.

Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers pairs the art of Marc Chagall with the talent of writers, Jane Yolen and Patrick L. Lewis, for a result that is illuminating in every sense of the word.

"There's never been anybody since [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has," Pablo Picasso once said. "[W]hen [Henri] Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is."  Chagall himself wrote that "there is a single color ... which provides the meaning of life and art.  It is the color of love."
 Such is the praise that Chagall received from his contemporaries and is related in Self-Portrait. Marc Chagall's use of color and light makes his work particularly appealing to children.  Chagall's art is the ingredient from which dreams may be made; and dreams and colors are things that children know intimately. But aside from a child's natural attraction to Chagall's colorful paintings on a purely visceral level, Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen make Chagall's art accessible through words, poetry, history, and examination. 

Paintings or works are presented in roughly chronological order, each chosen to represent a period in Chagall's life.  Each is paired with a poem by Yolen or Lewis, which gives context and definition to both the artwork and Chagall's life.  Opposite "My Fiancee in Black Gloves," Yolen writes, borrowing words from Chagall's first wife, Bella Rosenfeld.

"I was surprised at his eyes,
they were so blue as the sky,
and oblong, like almonds,"
Bella writes, and having written,
falls in love, she so young and rich,
and he but a poor apprentice,
working for a Russian painter
he will one day eclipse,
a sun over Bakst's pale moon.
Did she know how he would rise
like an angel into the sky
on that first day they met,
having tea at Teja's house,
or the next time on the bridge
when he and Teja walked the dog,
and Marc's curly hair spilling
out from under his hat.
Or did she just fall in love
with the surprise of his blue eyes?
Each poem is accompanied by a shaded box, offering facts about each particular period in Chagall's life, including his home, marriage, paintings, colleagues, friends, and the effects of war, politics and circumstances on his very existence and his work. 

Yolen's poetic additions to Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers ("with seven fingers" is a Yiddish phrase meaning "done well" or "adroitly done") are free-form in nature when compared with Lewis' more measured and often rhyming verse, however, all flow seamlessly and complement Chagall's work, sometimes inviting deeper exploration of the painting - offering almost a "seek-and find" challenge to the reader,


 From "I and the Village"
I hailed a milkmaid standing on her head
I saw a cow a-milking in a cow's head
I watched a peasant off to canvas tillage
I met the very universe in a village.
I spied a blossom sprig, a tree of life
I loved Vitebsk in glory and in strife
I scanned a multitude of images, with mirror
I etched a dream and strove to make it clearer
I solved the riddle imagined by a child
I sketched a field, geometry gone wild
I knew myself, white lips, my face in green
I drew the cow's contentment in between.

 Rounding out this exquisite book are photographs of Chagall, footnotes explaining the occassional Yiddish word or unfamiliar name, a table of contents, and source list.

Any art teacher introducing Marc Chagall without the benefit of this book is missing a great opportunity!

Highly recommended.

Today's Nonfiction Monday is at Tales from the Rushmore Kid.  Stop by.


  1. What an interesting concept, pairing poem to artwork. This would be perfect for an Art Masterpiece project, too. I'm getting ideas already...

  2. While I do enjoy the occasional picture book portrayal of scientists and mathematicians - I have a soft spot for writers, poets, musicians, and artists. And this book has captured me from the get-go. I LOVE the concept - and the promise of 'exquisite' illustrations. I would not have known about this book if we had not joined Nonfiction Monday. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. I've found many great books via Nonfiction Monday, too! Thanks for stopping by. I'm happy to spread the word about this unique book. Lisa

  4. sounds like an interesting read. I've been looking for good non-fiction books, I'll have to check this one out.


Beneath the Waves - a review

As we read disturbing news accounts of dying manatees , environmental disasters caused by toxic waste, and ocean pollution on the scale of ...