Of all creative artists, painters seem to be the most difficult to live with -- or perhaps their companions have simply been more willing to set their faults down on paper for the world to see. Virginia Haggard's account of the seven years she spent with Marc Chagall falls within the tradition established by such books as Franc,oise Gilot's "Life With Picasso"; it is an affectionate but unsparing portrait of the problematic nature of an artist and the demands he makes on those around him.
When Haggard went to keep house for Chagall while his daughter was on vacation in 1945, she was 29 years old, unhappily married to an artist with serious psychological problems and in desperate need of work to support herself and her 5-year-old daughter. Chagall was 58, still recovering from the death of his beloved wife the year before and feeling somewhat lost in postwar New York. Drawn together by their mutual unhappiness and loneliness, they quickly fell in love. Haggard soon moved into his Riverside Drive apartment, and they later made a home in Upstate New York, where their son was born in 1946, before moving to the Russian-born artist's new homeland, France, in 1948.
Haggard, a strong-minded young woman whose natural vivacity had been only temporarily suppressed by her difficult marriage, knew from the beginning that she would never be the center of Chagall's life. "My whole life is made of work," he told her. "The other things are secondary." Anything that interfered with his art was ruthlessly sacrificed: Haggard's young daughter, already upset by the break with her father, was sent away first to a village boarding school and then to her grandparents in England when the painter found her too noisy.
The couple were happy for many years, and the author draws an endearing picture of Chagall's infectious charm, but she was not well suited to the role of amanuensis. "I believe there is something untamable under the polished gloss of some members of my family," she writes. Though Chagall loved her, it's clear that his adored first wife, Bella, set the standard to which Haggard was expected to live up and that she had no intention of doing so.
One comes away from this candid and entertaining book feeling somewhat sorry for Chagall, who may have been fooled by the youth and fragile emotional state of the woman he met in 1945 into thinking that she could be molded into the companion he desired. By 1952, she had simply rebelled. She had an impetuous affair with a photographer and, despite everyone's urging that she relinquish her own happiness for the sake of a great artist, she left Chagall to live with a man she'd decided she loved more.
"My Life With Chagall" is a perceptive portrait of an artist. Haggard's analysis of her lover's personality -- secretive, shy, undemonstrative, perhaps a trifle too concerned with acceptance and commercial success -- rings true, and her remarks about his unease around more famous painters like Matisse and Picasso (whose art he disliked) are shrewd and funny, if a little unkind. Yet by far the most interesting character is Haggard herself: willful, passionate, impulsive, sometimes racked with guilt about the disruptions in her children's lives caused by her unconventional personal attachments, yet determined to follow her instincts and emotions wherever they led her. This is not simply another "I lived with the great man" book, but an intriguing autobiography of an unusual and appealing woman. The reviewer writes frequently about art.