Alfred A. Knopf, $40, 582 pp.
“If I were not a Jew...I wouldn’t have been an artist, or I would be a different artist altogether,” Russian-born painter Marc Chagall once declared. It was a paradoxical statement, because Judaism, with its prohibitions against image worship, has no sustained tradition of figurative art. Chagall recalled that, growing up in the isolated Russian town of Vitebsk during the late 1800s, he “never had a single picture, print, or reproduction.... I never had occasion to see, in Vitebsk, such a thing as a drawing.” But it was this upbringing in an introverted Hasidic community, with its archetypal characters, ingrained rituals, and shared imaginative life, that vividly sustained Chagall through eight decades as a painter, illustrator, and designer of stained glass and tapestries. His art gave form to Jewish folk culture and its dreams of wholeness, shelter, and perpetuity, the very dreams whose destruction he witnessed firsthand as a refugee and Wandering Jew of the twentieth century.
The tale of Chagall’s origins and rise to eminence is sweeping, spanning three continents and nearly a hundred years. His pictures still attract an enthusiastic public audience, but scholars’ opinions are more equivocal: in many ways, Chagall’s identity as an avatar of Jewish tradition and memory diverges from his reputation as a modern artist. By the 1980s, he had become an international cultural icon, thanks to his monumental stained-glass...