When I mentioned to friends that I was going to be writing about the painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985), their reaction was, invariably, a rolling of the eyes. This response isn’t difficult to understand. If Chagall has not become an embarrassment on the scale of Salvador Dalí, his standing as an artist has fallen considerably. Mention of his name is likely to bring forth images of a Russian-Jewish mythology characterized by a ripe sentimentality and woolly expanses of blue, rose, and pink, the pictorial equivalents of cotton candy. While Chagall’s position as a master of early modernist painting remains fundamentally undiminished —the austere and enchanting Over Vitebsk (1915–20) is a mainstay of MOMA’s permanent collection for good reason—his reputation as a lovable hack has all but superseded it.

So when a volunteer at the Jewish Museum informed me last year...

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