Windows to the soul

Dayton Art Institute presents ‘Chagall Windows’ lithographs

By Sarah Sidlow

Photo: Dayton Art Institute curator Aimee DeGalan with lithographs from theMarc Chagall: Jerusalem Window Lithographs exhibition which runs through Feb. 23; photo: Alexis Brown

 The Dayton Art Institute is pleased to be the temporary home of a unique and exciting collection. Marc Chagall: Jerusalem Window Lithographs presents lithographs of the 12 “Chagall Windows,” on loan from a family in the greater Dayton community.

The prints exemplify Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall’s signature sense of color and form, as well as his folk-art style of storytelling and his commitment to Jewish religious themes. The windows themselves were commissioned around 1960, when Chagall began creating 12 stained glass windows – a medium for which Chagall was famous – for the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Today, the windows are part of Chagall’s artistic legacy, examples of his reputation as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century.” Each of the 12 windows has a dominant color and represents one of the 12 tribes of Israel, which are blessed by Jacob and Moses in the Biblical books of Genesis and Deuteronomy. Floating figures of animals, fish and flowers tell the stories of each tribe.

“[Chagall] loved a commission that would challenge him,” DAI Curator Aimee DeGalan said. “He said, ‘This is perfect!’ He really was honored to have this commission to do this, he felt he was not only illuminating the chapel physically, but spiritually.”

Chagall envisaged the windows as “jewels of translucent fire,” in a crown – the synagogue – offered as a gift to the Jewish queen.

“This is my modest gift to the Jewish people who have always dreamt of biblical love, friendship and  of peace among all peoples,” Chagall said at the installation of the series in 1962. “This is my gift to that people which lived here thousands of years ago among the other Semitic people.”

The lithographs currently on display at the DAI were created in 1964 by master printmaker Charles Sorlier, who worked closely with Chagall. They were created with Chagall’s close consultation and based on his preparatory sketches for the “Chagall Window” series. Sorlier was mentoring Chagall – already at this point a renowned artist and 63 years old – in the new medium of printmaking. Sorlier also worked with other artists of renown, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, but his relationship with Chagall was especially close.

“Sorlier would create trial proofs for the print,” DeGalan said. “He would show Chagall what they looked like, and Chagall would go over them with pastel, so his hand is in there.”

The plates would go back and forth between the artists in a series of creative considerations. Sometimes a plate beginning with only six colors would end up with 25, because Chagall continuously added layers of color. The result was a series of lithographs with a strong visual similarity to the “Chagall Windows” in Jerusalem.

“Chagall was so humble he didn’t want to take credit for his master’s assistance,” DeGalan said, “so he insisted that Sorlier sign the plate. You’ll see them in the print itself.”

In addition to Chagall’s hand and Sorlier’s signature, the exhibit couples each of the 12 lithographs with the related religious text, as found in Genesis and Deuteronomy, and a classic Judaic text called the Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar. Also on display is a map which shows the geographic location of each of the 12 tribes. The lithographs are rare pieces and don’t surface often in art markets. The DAI exhibit is a special opportunity for visiters to view the lithographs before they return to private collection, and it’s an exciting one for the institute.

“We were thrilled,” DeGalan said. “The lenders were so generous, they said, ‘Anytime you want these please feel free to borrow them.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an exhibition waiting to happen.’”

While the lithographs won’t be on display forever, the DAI plans to continue hosting similar exhibitions – a plan tentatively called Hall of Holidays, which will support and display a number of religions and traditions. This was a concept DeGalan worked with closely in creating the Chagall exhibit.

“I thought it was important to look at some of the passages that Chagall looked at and was thinking about when he designed the windows so people of different faiths can come and see where the iconography came out of,” DeGalan said.

Marc Chagall: Jerusalem Window Lithographs will be on display in the South Gallery of the museum’s lower level through Sunday, Feb. 23. Admission to the exhibition is included in the museum’ s suggested general admission. For more information, please visit


Reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at


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