Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rare Works by Chagall Color French Classics

NICE, France -- First listening to his wife and friends reading the fables over and over, then memorizing them in his newly learned French, Marc Chagall translated the words of Jean de La Fontaine into the vivid scenes now on display in a Nice museum.

In 1926, an art dealer commissioned a deluxe volume of the fables, marrying the Russian exile's art with the 17th-century French poet, but it never materialized. The pictures were sold to private buyers in 1930.

Only a few were ever displayed publicly -- until now. Twenty-four of Chagall's 100 original illustrations have been gathered for the exhibit running until March 25 at the Mus?e National Message Biblique Marc Chagall.

The illustrations are straightforward interpretations of La Fontaine's biting commentaries on French society and are executed with Chagall's trademark bold color and fluid lines.

Chagall arrived in France in 1924 with only a rudimentary knowledge of French. He spent hours listening to Bella, his wife, and his friends recite the fables. Finally, Chagall himself learned them by heart, reciting them as he worked. He died in 1985.

While Chagall was eager to adapt to his adopted homeland, some critics were offended that a foreigner, "a Judeo-Russian'' as one anti-Semitic critic put it, should be commissioned to illustrate French classics.

Art aficionados today disagree. "Look at the vivacity of his strokes, the spontaneity and the vibrancy of the colors,'' Sylvie Forestier, one of the show's curators, said. "They're sheer poetry.''

"Chagall was working from French landscapes for the first time. His colors are rich and luminous. You can see he's left the grayness of Russia behind,'' Forestier said.