In the 1960s, Marc Chagall was considered to be “the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists”. For decades, he had been the world’s preeminent Jewish artist, working in both canvas and stained glass. He produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale murals.
In 1960, the French Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux commissioned him to paint a new ceiling for the Paris Opéra. It was said that Malraux was bored attending a Ravel opera (where Chagall designed the set and the costumes) and looked up to the ceiling and got the idea to redesign it. During the intermission, Malraux approached Chagall (they had known each other for thirty years) to design a new ceiling.
It was a monumental task: it would have to be twelve canvas panels plus a round central panel totalling about two hundred and forty square metres. Chagall was apprehensive at first and spent a couple of years considering it and making sketches and models. When the commission was officially announced in 1962, it was not received well. ‘Modern’ art was still a controversial topic, especially after Malraux’s earlier, equally-criticized commission of Braque to redo a ceiling at the Louvre.
Chagall refused to be paid for his ceiling, and the State covered only the material costs of the work. Considering the task, he proceeded swiftly, taking it only eight months netween January and August 1964. His inspirations were the great composers and operas of the recent past, each portrayed in a dominant color. In the central panel were Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s La Traviata, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Other works by Moussorgski, Mozart, Wagner, Berlioz, Rameau, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Adolphe Adam surrounded it.
During the work, Chagall allowed Israëlis Bidermanas, a Lithuanian-Jewish photographer friend who worked under the name of Izis, to come and take photos of his process at Atelier des Gobelins. The controversy in the newspapers had forced him to work in secret there, before transporting it to Meudon to assemble under military protection. The photos were published in Paris-Match (September 26, 1964) a few days after the ceiling was unveiled. The double spread which dominated the photoessay showed the painter working on Adam’s ballet Giselle (the peasants’ dance under the village trees at the end of the first act).