Artist’s touching portrait of his father went on display in New York this week. We trace its extraordinary story, through two world wars
FEBRUARY 23, 2023 12:34
Khatskl Shagal spent his life in poverty, a humble labourer carrying heavy barrels for a herring merchant. If it were not for his son’s artistic talents, the “shy and quiet” Khatskl, who died in 1921, would now almost certainly be completely forgotten.
But Khatskl’s son was the artist Marc Chagall. And his portrait was this week unveiled at New York’s Jewish Museum, the latest chapter in an extraordinary story. Chagall’s picture of his father survived two world wars, was stolen twice, and was later bought back by the artist himself from his own exhibition.
The original owner survived Auschwitz, where his family was murdered, but his efforts to get the painting back ended in failure.
However, his heirs managed to regain ownership and the picture was sold for millions last year. Its new owner, who remains anonymous, has now lent it to the museum in New York for one year.
Born Moishe Shagal in what is today Belarus, Marc Chagall moved to Paris in 1910 at the age of 23 to develop his artistic style in the capital of European artistic expression.
Later in life he wrote of that time: “When I arrived in France, I was struck by the sparkle of colour, the play of light, and I found what I had been searching for blindly, that refinement of material and wild colour.”
But he initially found only hardship in the city, unable to speak French, he eventually moved to La Ruche, an artists’ commune on the outskirts of Montparnasse.
Over the next three years, between 1911-1914, he created some of the most outstanding works of his career, including Le Père.
Chagall wrote about his father: “Day after day, winter and summer, at six o’clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other.
“On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father’s lot…
“He lifted heavy barrels, and my heart used to twist like a Turkish pretzel as I watched him carrying those loads and stirring the little herrings with his frozen hands.”
Throughout his career, Chagall incorporated fish motifs in many of his works in honour of his father, including in Le Père, where fish can vaguely be seen entangled in his beard.
In 1914, Chagall, unaware that a world war was about to break out, returned to Russia leaving his paintings behind in his beloved Paris. He eventually returned to the city in 1923 in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the First World War.
Upon his arrival, Chagall rushed to La Ruche only to discover that the more than 150 of his works that had been left behind, including Le Père, were now gone without a trace.
Almost all of Chagall’s pre-war body of work, on which his reputation had relied, had been lost.
Faced with this shocking and sudden loss, Chagall, who was becoming well-known if not rich, spent much of the early 1920s recreating that œuvre.
What had become of Le Père?
Miraculously, it survived the Great War. And somehow it travelled east to Poland. By 1928, the painting found itself in the hands of one of the most distinguished Polish antiquarians of the day, Jewish art dealer Abe Gutnajer, who sold the painting to one David Cender.
Cender, a prominent Polish-Jewish violin maker and luthier, wrote music for some of Poland’s preeminent musicians, and put the work on display in his home in Lodz, then home to a thriving Jewish community, with 34 per cent of its 665,000 inhabitants from a Jewish background.
Following the Nazis’ rise to power, Cender’s valuable possessions were all confiscated, including the painting.
He and his family were moved to the Lodz ghetto in 1940. Gutnajer was killed in 1942 by Nazis on the eve of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and the murder of its inhabitants.
Cender was later deported to Auschwitz, where his wife Ruta and daughter Bluma were killed. His mother Gitla and sisters Ida and Ester were also murdered in Nazi death camps in 1942.
Cender survived and moved to France in 1958 where he spent his final years trying unsuccessfully to regain his lost possessions through the local authorities. He died in 1966.
The painting disappeared between 1940 and 1952, but in 1953, Le Père resurfaced for the first time since being looted, this time appearing at a Chagall exhibition in Turin, Italy. The name of David Cender as the painting’s former owner was nowhere mentioned in the exhibition.
At some point, probably between 1947 and 1953, at a Chagall exhibition, Marc Chagall had repurchased the painting without knowing its provenance, according to the French culture ministry.
Chagall, whose father had died in 1921 at the age of 60, evidently held strong feelings about the piece. One can only imagine how he felt to be reunited with it about four decades and two world wars after painting it.
After Chagall died in March 1985, his heirs donated the painting to the national collections of France in 1988. It was first housed at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris before being moved to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History).
There it would probably have stayed, were it not for a landmark bill adopted unanimously by the French National Assembly in January 2022 that approved the return of 15 Nazi-looted works of art to the rightful owners and heirs, and the intervention of a Canadian art detective.
James Palmer has made waves in the sedate art world by seeking out heirs of art believed to have been stolen by the Nazis, and researching, verifying and recovering work on their behalf.
Palmer and his Toronto-based company Mondex Corporation has been involved in artwork restitution since 1993 in more than 44 countries. Upwards of 90 per cent of Palmer’s cases involve Nazi theft of Jewish-owned artworks.
As part of his role advocating to the French government directly, Palmer had to prove the ownership rights of Cender’s descendants and find out what had happened to the painting in the many intervening years.
For Palmer, it’s about far more than his fee. “In this case and in other restitution cases I take on, it can bring a tremendous closure to families who, after so much time, can be put in touch again with previous generations,” he tells me.
“I’m really happy that in this case one of the heirs, who was 89 years old, experienced this closure before she passed away a couple of weeks ago.”
He praises the French government for the restitution of the art. “It doesn’t have to be an acrimonious situation, it’s a very positive thing and everyone benefits.”
Palmer was helped by an “amazing” team of researchers and experts who work with Europe’s complicated ownership laws and historical records. “We are a very mixed group, which is a great thing as everybody brings different qualities, and you develop a magical synergy and a shared interest in art and a desire for closure and justice.”
He rejects critics who have called him an “art ambulance chaser”. “We deal with humanity, and very human issues, often with deep emotional and sensitive implications. But to be involved in the rectification of historical injustices is very rewarding.”
On April 1, 2022, Le Père was returned to David Cender’s heirs by the French parliament in Paris, more than 80 years after it had been pilfered. On behalf of the descendants, Palmer arranged with Phillips auction house in New York for its sale in November last year. The painting sold for $7,404,500.
Following the sale, the auction house team worked with the anonymous buyer and facilitated the loan to New York’s Jewish Museum.
The process of restitution and the display in New York means a great deal to David Cender’s family. His great-nephew, Meir (who asked the JC not to use his surname to protect the family’s privacy) recalls meeting his great uncle David as a boy in the 1960s “three or four times”, but never knowing about his art collection.
“It was a mixture of feelings; excitement, and sorrow, to first find out about the painting in 2015, when my father Jonathan told me he had received a letter from James Palmer,” Meir told me. “Up until then, we didn’t know Uncle David had been an art collector.
“My father wasn’t too sure about it at first, not knowing what to make of it, but he continued to cooperate. After my father passed away in 2019, my brother and I continued the process with James Palmer.
“The Holocaust for Jews is something very sensitive; it awakens strong feelings, sorrow and memories. Even we, the second generation, are very tight[-lipped] about it.
“But to see the incredible effort of the French government to decide to return stolen artworks, and to be a part of it, was very exciting.”
In an emotional speech at the ceremony live streamed to the ceremony in New York from his home in Israel, he thanked Palmer and his team and all those involved in the restitution process “with humility and deep gratitude.
“We must ask ourselves why over the centuries of injustice we still yearn for [justice]? The answer is that justice is hardwired into our nature.
“We yearn for justice because a vision of justice has been planted in our souls; it is a divine spark. We did not choose it and millennia of injustice cannot stamp it out.
“When we think about the fact that this painting, which was taken from its rightful owner, was restored to its owner, our souls stand up and applaud. Justice won out.
“We are celebrating the fact that our souls are still alive. That we still have the notion of justice woven into our fabric. That the yearning has endured.”