David Mourns Absalom, 1931-1939, Heliogravure, Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Proper 14, Art for August 12, 2012

Marc Chagall was born into a close-knit Jewish family that moved to Vitebsk, Russia in his youth. His interest in art was encouraged and when he was a young man he left home to live in Paris, the center of the art world at that time. In Paris, he was influenced by Cubism but did not continue in that direction. Instead, his paintings evolved into a personal art that has been called, Fantasy, Expressionism, Surrealism, or even Naïve Art; none of these categories fit entirely. In 1914, when World War I began, Chagall went back to Russia but while there, the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) changed his world again. He returned to Paris after the war. Later, the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s was of great concern and he tried to express his thoughts through paintings; subjects included scenes of the crucifixion. That a devout Jew would paint a crucifixion was unusual but he said, for him, the figure on the cross also symbolized the suffering of the Jewish people. Chagall’s David Mourns Absalom, was made during this time period.

In Chagall’s work there is usually a child-like freedom of expression and rules of proportion or the law of gravity are not inhibiting factors. People may be placed upside down or floating freely through the air, and there is charm in scenes such as a man (possibly his uncle) on a rooftop playing the violin. In contrast to his usual work, Chagall’s David Mourns Absalom is not a celebration. When David was told Absalom had been killed, his grief was overwhelming. He said, “Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, Oh Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 18:33). Even with David’s worldly glory – represented by his crown and the fortress-like walls and tower in the background – he could not change what happened. David with a hand on his forehead is sitting on the ground carrying his grief alone while people passing on the road below are preoccupied with their own concerns. The reason for Chagall’s placement of the sun in the background is not clear; as a setting sun it may reflect David’s despair. As a rising sun, it may indicate hope for the future.

Inasmuch as acid is used to etch a plate, a heliogravure (the process used to print Chagall’s drawing) may be called an “etching” but it differs from a print made by an artist working directly on a prepared plate with a scriber. Nicephore Niecpe of France developed this process in the early nineteenth century while trying to make a photograph. It has been known since the time of the early Greeks that light carries images. If we place ourselves in a light free room (a camera obscura – meaning “dark room”) with a small hole in one wall, light enters the room through the hole and the outside scene is projected (upside down) onto the opposite wall; Niepce and others were seeking a way to make a permanent copy of the projected image but early photographs faded rather quickly. In answer to this, Niepce invented a method that could print an image in ink. In this process, an image was transferred onto an emulsion covered copper plate. After several steps, the plate was etched, inked, and printed. Although early photographs would fade, an image of it could be printed permanently on paper in ink. Drawings could be reproduced by this method as well.


Heliogravure translates to “sun engraving.” Sunlight is used to harden the light sensitive emulsion while preparing the plate but a heliogravure is not an “engraving” in the traditional sense. Recessed areas are not removed with a burin. They are eaten away with acid and therefore it is an “etching.”

Nicephore Niecpe is credited with making the first photograph (in 1826).

If a person is not familiar with Chagall’s work and saw only David Mourns Absalom, they might think it was refrigerator-door-art drawn by a grandchild. It is likely that this drawing was a preliminary sketch done hastily with charcoal as Chagall was exploring ideas.

Images from Chagall’s paintings of village scenes and houses were used for sets of the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” (based on the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem). Chagall designed sets for Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Firebird,” and he also painted murals. Two of his murals were for opera houses; the Metropolitan in New York City and the Paris Opera.


© 2012 Hovak Najarian

Continue the conversation: leave a comment or ask a question.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: