Chagall in Cranberry Lake

by Lisa Bramen | August 2019, History

An Adirondack vacation that ended in tragedy

eviled as a “degenerate”
by the Nazis, celebrated by the Paris art world and investigated for suspected Communist ties by the FBI, Marc Chagall prompted little more than bemused shrugs from the townspeople of Cranberry Lake in the summer of 1944. That August the world-famous artist, best known for fanciful scenes of Jewish village life in his native Russia, spent several weeks at the Evergreen Hotel with his wife, Bella, painting and taking strolls along the lake. Though the couple, who had escaped Vichy France and were living in New York City, were fluent in four languages, they spoke little English.

“Well, of course, we had our opinion of him,” recalled David R. MacAleese, whose brother William owned the Evergreen, in a 1985 interview in the Watertown Daily Times. MacAleese and his wife operated the Park Restaurant across the street, where Chagall ate some meals. The artist used an unfinished room in the hotel as a studio.

“I used to think I’d go over and see some of his paintings, but I never did,” said MacAleese, adding, “I didn’t think some of them were really so wonderful.”

A few people, mistaking the Chagalls’ Yiddish conversation for German, even wondered aloud whether the couple was spying, according to MacAleese. “Wasn’t that an awful thing to say?”

Rumors also swirled among the local youngsters, says David’s son John. He was about 13 then and remembers that his and his friends’ youthful imaginations assigned nefarious purposes to the couple’s routines, such as their frequent long walks into the woods. “We thought they were calling Germany or something,” he says. “But that was just kids’ talk.”

If the Adirondackers regarded the Chagalls warily, the feeling was mutual. In a letter to a friend, Bella wrote, “Here the only Jews are God Himself and … us. The food is American, the talk is American, nature—American-Russian, French-Swiss. A lake—as large as the sky and the air—strong and clean. This is the place to gather strength. But … in a week we are dragging ourselves again.”

Yet this was hardly the first time the Chagalls felt keenly their status as outsiders.

Marc Chagall was
born Moyshe Shagal on July 7, 1887, in Vitebsk, a city of 66,000 in what is today Belarus. At the time it was ruled by Russia and was part of the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were allowed, though with restrictions on where they could live, work and study. More than half of the city’s population were Jews. Moyshe, called Moysie by his family, was the eldest of nine children of Khatskel, who worked in a herring warehouse, and Feiga-Ita, who ran a small grocery. The family lived on the poor side of town in a log house called an izba.

Feiga-Ita doted on her Moysie, ensuring he was well-fed even when there was little to go around and bribing the headmaster at a Russian school to let him in beyond the quota for Jewish students. It was here he had his first exposure to art.

Later, as an art student, Chagall met and fell in love with Bella Rosenfeld, whose parents were the wealthy owners of three jewelry stores. Despite her parents’ initial objection to the scruffy young artist, Bella and Marc wed in 1915. The following year they had a daughter, Ida, and in 1917, the Russian Revolution appeared poised to lift the status of the region’s Jews. Chagall made some of his most famous paintings in these years, including The Fiddler, which inspired the Broadway musical The Fiddler on the Roof, and The Birthday, a gravity-defying portrait of Chagall and Bella kissing.

As Chagall tried to further his career, the family bounced from Vitebsk to Moscow to Berlin and ultimately Paris. The early promise of the revolution gave way to Josef Stalin’s brutal dictatorship, which reignited anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. The Chagalls would never see their hometown again.

In Paris they became French citizens and felt at home at last—but not for long. In 1937, Adolf Hitler included several of Chagall’s paintings in an exhibition of so-called entartete kunst (degenerate art), which demonized modernist artists, many of them Jews. The advent of World War II and the fall of Paris put the family in danger once again. With help from American Jews and members of the arts community, the Chagalls managed to escape to New York City on June 21, 1941. In Jackie Wullschläger’s 2008 Chagall: A Biography, she writes,  “At precisely the time of his arrival in New York Germany invaded Russia…. ‘God knows what happens to Russia—our Vitebsk is burning,’ Bella wrote to [their friends] the Opatashus in July…. Chagall wrote in an address to his native city after its liberation that ‘I know I shall not find the tombstones or even the graves of my parents anymore.’”

He was right. By the time Vitebsk was liberated, in June 1944, most of the buildings had been destroyed and the population had dwindled to a couple hundred, none of them Jews. Somehow, Bella’s remaining family had managed to escape the Holocaust, though she died before she learned they were safe.

Throughout their exile, Bella was sickly and seemed to lose the will to live. The couple occasionally retreated to the countryside for fresh air and scenery that reminded them of Russia, though even in America they couldn’t escape bigotry. According to an account Chagall gave later, Bella became upset when she noticed a sign that suggested only white Christians were welcome as guests at a Beaver Lake hotel. No source specifies which of New York’s places of that name it may have been, though subtly worded prohibitions against Jews and people of color weren’t uncommon, including in the Adirondacks.   

In August 1944, while Chagall painted, Bella spent her time in Cranberry Lake organizing the manuscript for her memoir. Chagall later wrote that he asked her, “‘Why this sudden tidiness?’ She answered with a wan smile, ‘So you’ll know where everything is.’ All calm and deep presentiment. I can see her again from our hotel window, sitting by the lake before going into the water. Waiting for me.”

A photographer and writer on assignment from Collier’s Weekly visited the Adirondacks to interview the artist. Of Cranberry Lake, the article noted, “Chagall uses all the English at his command to describe it as ‘Fantastique—good!’”

On August 26, Paris was liberated by the Allies. According to Wullschläger, “The Chagalls planned to return to France as soon as possible,” but before they could even return to New York City Bella became ill. She was taken to Mercy General Hospital, in Tupper Lake, but penicillin was not yet widely available for anything but military use. Within days she had died of a strep infection.

Chagall wrote, “The thunder rolled, the clouds opened at six o’clock on the evening of September 2, 1944, when Bella left this world. Everything went dark.”

Some accounts of Bella’s death say that she was either turned away at the Tupper Lake hospital or got nervous when the nuns there asked her religion and insisted she be taken back to the hotel. But the evidence, including an account by Ida Chagall, shows that Bella died at the hospital and was treated like any other patient. Wullschläger speculates that in Chagall’s grief he conflated the horrors of the Holocaust and the all-too-real prejudice he and Bella had endured elsewhere.

How the Chagalls found their way to Cranberry Lake and the Evergreen Hotel in the first place is unknown, but Patricia Petersen, a summer resident of Cranberry Lake who has researched the Chagalls’ visit, points out that Tupper Lake and its surroundings were home to a small Jewish community. 

Chagall and his daughter remained in New York for several more years, though he eventually returned to France, where he is celebrated as one of the great French artists of the 20th century.

The critics of Cranberry Lake, though, were less enthusiastic. Barbara Slater, who was a child in 1944, says her father told her Chagall had given him a drawing in thanks for translating for him, but he didn’t care for it and had discarded it.

Another artwork Chagall made in the Adirondacks, La Route à Cranberry Lake, had a more dignified journey. In 2011, the Chagall Museum in Nice purchased the painting for 1.14 million dollars.   

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