Marc Chagall returned to Europe in 1946, arriving in Paris. He and his beloved wife, Bella, fled from the Nazis in 1940 and found themselves in exile in New York City. Bella died while in the United States, in 1944. Now, alone in Paris, and with the burden of recent history on his mind, he felt he could at last finish his masterwork, The Falling Angel, which he had been working on for nearly 25 years. Compared with most of Chagall's oeuvre, which tends toward the romantic and fantastical, The Falling Angel is a relatively dark piece. Chagall's biographer would describe the painting as an “allegory of an age of terror.”
Chagall began working on the painting shortly after he left Moscow for the Montparnasse district of Paris, in 1923. It combines Biblical and Torah lore with images taken from modern life and Chagall's own personal symbolism. The Falling Angel would summarize all of Chagall's experiences he had lived through up to that point in his life. Chagall had managed to get through the hardships of the Russian Revolution without too much trouble. In a 1934 photograph of the unfinished work, the tone of the painting is much lighter. There is a nice picket fence separating the viewer from the scene, and the falling angel resembles a youthful acrobat in a circus performance. But the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and his wife's death while in exile in the United States, had affected him deeply.
As war seemed immanent, the work began to take on a foreboding and ominous tone. The boyish acrobat became a flaming, falling angel, the figure of a man protecting the Torah and man with a cane losing his balance was added. The grandfather clock, floating as if in the middle of a tornado, suggests that these are troubling times. The painting depicts a dark world, overturned and shattered, it's space is a topsy-turvy and uncertain place. Our vantage point—hovering over the village at the picture's center—suggests that we too are falling. But all is not lost; Chagall does provide refuge from the storm. A candle still burns bright in the gloom, a yellow cow plays the violin, the Madonna with Child rises from the flames, and Christ's halo shines like a lighthouse beacon into the night. There is hope for the future.
Chagall, a Jew, believed the Crucifixion was the only image powerful enough to properly express the persecution, suffering, and attempted annihilation of his people. Sometimes his crucified Christ is Jewish, with tallit and phylacteries, sometimes his Christ is the Christian Jesus, with a halo, and sometimes his crucified figure is meant to represent a secular, every man. Sometimes in Chagall's Golgotha, he replaces the Roman soldiers with Nazis, and animals, rabbis and Russian peasants often stand in for grieving angels.
After The Falling Angel was exhibited, Chagall felt a change come over him. Chagall had spent nearly 25 years, a generation, working on the painting, dragging it's 5' x 6' frame with him from city to city, and half way across the world and back. He had socialized with other avant-garde artists and forward-thinking people in both Paris and New York. Now he wished to retreat from public life. In 1950 he moved to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a quiet town on the Mediterranean coast of France. He still had many years of painting ahead of him, but now he would do it in peace.