It was inevitable, perhaps, that the headline on The New York Times’s front-page obituary of Marc Chagall would describe him as “One of Modern Art’s Giants.” This was the status which the press had routinely conferred upon the artist for as long as anyone could remember, and it would have been churlish—if not something worse—to deny him this outsize claim on the occasion of his death at the age of ninety-seven. It may, after all, have been one of the last occasions on which the claim could be made without risking ridicule. Posterity, which can always be counted on to observe a different code of etiquette in regard to fame of this sort, is unlikely to be so kind.

Yet if Chagall was never exactly the towering “giant” which his admirers had long taken him to be, he was certainly a better painter and a more interesting artist than his detractors—who were also...


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