Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers:
The Life of Marc Chagall in Verse
By J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen
Readers GuideBy Jamie Baccaro
Lewis, J. Patrick and Jane Yolen. 2011. Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers: The Life of Marc Chagall in Verse. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions. ISBN 9781568462110.
Recommended Age Levels
Ages 11 and up
Summary of Book
This pictorial biography of Marc Chagall is told through fourteen illuminating poems of his life over the past nine decades. The reader is introduced in the beginning to the Jewish heritage of Chagall in Russia through both the symbolic artwork and the sprinkling of Yiddish terms in the poetry. The title phrase “with seven fingers” in Yiddish means to do something well or adroitly. Each poem is elaborated on by a paragraph below the poem that explains what was going on in his life as well as any definitions of Yiddish terms. Chagall comes from a small village called Vitebsk in Russia where half the population is Jewish, otherwise known as shtetls. He was the oldest of nine children and describes in Maternity the celebration of his younger brother. In I and the Village, Over Vitebsk, and The Violinist Chagall details the important features of his village as the poem speaks the dialogue that could have played out from the scene. Chagall’s life beyond the village began after his engagement with Bella Rosenfield and his move to Paris. The next set of poems (My Fiancée in Black Gloves, Birthday, Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine, Paris Through the Window, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, The Promenade, and The Flying Horse) tells of his life with his wife, daughter, Paris, Russia and escape from the Nazis. The joy that is portrayed in most of these artworks are mirrored through the poetic words and exuded emotion. The latter part of his life involved the death of Bella, another wife and son, France and his wife of the last thirty years of his life. These remaining poems of Autoportrait, The Tribe of Levi, and The Fall of Icarus represent the decades of the 60’s and 70’s in his life. These last poems and paintings appear to symbolize a denouement to the life of artist Marc Chagall.
Review Excerpts and Awards
*Book was released in August of 2011 therefore there are no published reviews or awards as of yet.
Questions to Ask Before Reading
*Before the students can see the cover of the book, ask them “What do you think the book Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers: The Life of Marc Chagall in Verse is about?” When students share their answers ask them to share what their clues were. After several have shared their guesses, show them the cover and explain the title and pictures on the cover.
*Do you know who Marc Chagall is? Can you name a famous artist? Why do you think someone would choose to be an artist for a profession? What kind of jobs can an artist do?
*Marc Chagall has lived and traveled to different parts of the world. Find these places on the map provided: St. Petersburg-Russia, Berlin-Germany, Paris-France, Pyrenees Mountains, Spain, New York-New York, Jerusalem-Israel, Saint-Paul-de-Vence – France.
*Share with students that Chagall grew up in a small village and in this village they had customs or traditions or things that they did that were unique to where they lived. What are some customs or traditions that people in your neighborhood do? (Ex: 4th of July fireworks, beginning of summer barbeques, church Fall bazaars)
*Chagall knew at a very young age what his talent was and what he wanted to do with his talent. Do you have a talent? Do you think you might know what you want to do for a living when you are older?
*Chagall was persecuted for who he was. Has anyone ever been mean to you because of who you are (the color of your skin, ethnicity, religion, and the way you talk)?
Suggestions for Reading Poems Aloud
- I and the Village – The whole class can participate but only nine students will read a line. Students will be characters from the poem and freeze in a position of action, as if in a frozen scene from a play. One student will read a line at a time. When they read their line they will stand up and say the line directly to the audience and then go back to their frozen action statue. One student will play the part of Chagall who will be facing the audience but with a canvas in front of him and a paint brush in his hand. Every fourth line will be spoken by all the village people in the same fashion that their own lines were spoken. The performance should be in the surrealistic style that Chagall was known for.
- The Promenade – Divide the class into four groups, one group for each stanza. Have an aisle in the middle with a long carpet to represent the ‘promenade’. All groups will be lined up on the carpet, one behind the other. Each stanza represents a city and students should be dressed appropriately for their city. Russian villagers should have old clothes, Paris clothes should have sparkle and color, and New York should have red and amber colors with glitter petticoats like the poem describes. The groups should walk one group at a time on the carpet by taking one step for each line. When each group is done with their stanza they are to walk quickly down the carpet and to one side of the carpet. All groups will recite the last two lines while looking up slightly toward the lights in the ceiling.
- The Flying Horse – Students in the class will be divided into two groups. The group on the left will face the audience and say the first half (eight lines) of the poem directly to the audience in unison. While the first group is speaking the second group will be in a frozen tableau that will represent the people with yellow stars, soldiers and children. When the first group is finished with the first half they will freeze into a tableau that will represent Paris people, soldiers, Chagall and the death of his wife Bella. The second group will unfreeze and simply stand up straight and face the audience while saying the second half of the poem in unison.
Follow Up Activities
- Marc Chagall cherished his memories from his youth growing up in a small village in Russia. He later used these objects and symbols from his childhood in his paintings throughout his life. Write some memories of your childhood and currently that you will want to remember as an adult. These anecdotes and memories could be a treasure in years to come.
- The poems in this book are varied in their form. Some poems have rhyming elements and some are more of a free verse form. Take a special moment in your life (ex: when a baby sister/brother was born, when you broke your arm, first day at a new school, made the winning point, first recital etc.) and tell the story either in a rhyming pattern or free verse.
- Using a poster of The Violinist pass out three strips of paper to each student. Divide the class into group of four. Have each student write on one strip of paper how the picture of The Violinist makes them feel. On the second piece of paper write a descriptive sentence of what they see. On the last piece of paper write an action sentence about what they see. Give each group a piece of construction paper and have them arrange their strips of paper to create their own group poem. They can further extend by having one student in the group read the original poem and have the rest freeze in a tableau that represents the picture of The Violinist.
- Chagall lived during times of war and political upheaval. Research the years of WWI and how did this time in Russia effect the Jewish people and Chagall?
- Research the years of WWII and Chagall during this time. How was Chagall affected by the Nazis? What did he do?
- Use the book and a map and retrace the journey that Chagall made around the globe throughout his life. Where did he spend most of his life living? Why do you think he loved this city?
- Chagall spent most of his life escaping persecution and in search for opportunities where none were afforded to him before because of his Jewish heritage. Have you had a personal experience where you felt you were being picked on for who you are? Share your story. Do you know an older person who has had a personal experience with prejudice? Interview this person and share their story with the class.
- (Math and Art lesson) After looking at The Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers then discuss what Cubism means. Find in groups the acute, obtuse and right angles in the art work. Each student will create their own cubist artwork with the subject being themselves doing something that they are good at. Each student will be given an 8x11 piece of construction paper to draw their picture on. The picture must include acute, obtuse, and right angles as well as various polygons. Once students are finished with their own art, all pictures will be taped together to create one giant rectangle. Measure the rectangle to find the area and the perimeter of it.
- Using the map and distance scale provided that shows the journey that Chagall has made across the globe, find the distance traveled between each city. What was the total distance traveled?
- If three paintings were sold in 1914 for $3,930 and now one painting is worth 2 million dollars, what is the rate of increase? (Formula: current price – original price / original price. Multiply answer x 100 to get the percent.)
- Chagall is known for his uses of color and light in his paintings. Experiment with paint in creating light and dark colors. What happens to a color when white is mixed in with it? What happens to a color when black is mixed in with it? What happens to certain colors when mixed with other colors?
- Chagall traveled to various countries from the early 1900’s through modern times. Research and compare how transportation has changed through the 20th century. What type of transportation do you think Chagall used to get from Russia to France? What type of transportation do you think Chagall used to get from Spain to the United States?
- (Cubism) Show students Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers and explain. Pair students up and have them sketch their partner using exaggeration. Exaggerate features using various shapes. Distortion of features is acceptable. Experiment with color and the use of light next to dark colors. Students can use oil pastels.
- Show students the I and the Village piece and explain the idea of Surrealism. Have students draw a big X in the middle of their card stock paper in the portrait view. Have students draw four pictures of important memories or important things in their life. Emphasis should be on bright colors, focal points, and dream like unrealistic scenes.
Related Web Sites
*Marc Chagall Biography
This Web site tells about the life of Marc Chagall.
*Marc Chagall Paintings
This Web site shows thirteen paintings and explains different features of each painting.
*Marc Chagall Personal Portraits
This Web site includes a biography of Chagall as well as many personal portraits of him through the years.
*Marc Chagall Collection at Museum of Modern Art
This Museum of Modern Art Web site has over 2o Marc Chagall works available for viewing online.
This is the definition of surrealism from Merriam-Webster online.
*Surrealism Art Movement
The surrealism movement as described by James Voorhies who works in the Department of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
*Cubism for Kids
Basic explanation of cubism in kid’s terms.
*Cubism Art Movement
This history of cubism is explained by Sabine Reward from the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
*Jewish Heritage Symbols
This Web site explains the meaning of some famous symbols in the Jewish heritage.
*The History of World War I
This Web site is from the History Channel and gives the background in text and video on how and why the war began.
*The History of World War II
This Web site is from the History Channel and gives the background in text and video on how and why the war began.
*History of the Holocaust
This Web site is put together by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise that was established in 1993 to strengthen the U.S. – Israeli relationship.
*German Occupation of France
This Web site gives a very succinct explanation of the occupation of France.
*J. Patrick Lewis
This Web site is the poet and author’s official site. The site has a list of all his books, teacher and student information as well as poems and riddles.
This Web site is the poet and author’s official site. The site has links for teachers, answers for kids, advice for storytellers and writers, a biography, awards as well as a list of newly released books.
Marc Chagall Juvenile Literature
*Hopler, Brigitta. 1998. Marc Chagall: life is a dream. Prestel – Verlag.
*Landmann, Bimba. 2006. I am Marc Chagall: text loosely inspired by My Life by Marc Chagall. Ill. By Bimba Landmann. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
*Lemke, Elisabeth and Thomas David. 2000. Marc Chagall: What colour is paradise? Picture selection is by Elisabeth Lemke and Thomas David. Prestel.
*Markel, Michelle. 2005. Dreamer from the Village: the story of Marc Chagall. Ill by Emily Lisker. Henry Holt and Co.
*Mason, Antony. 2005. Marc Chagall. World Almanac Library.
*Welton, Jude. 2003. Marc Chagall. Franklin Watts.
Holocaust Non-Fiction and Fiction
*Engle, Margarita. 2009. Tropical Secrets: Holocaust refugees in Cuba. Henry Holt. (Holocaust fiction)
*Hawes, Alison. 2011. Who’s Who in WWII. Crabtree Publishing Co. (WWII biographies)
*Kacer, Kathy. 2006. Hiding Edith: a true story. Second Story Press.
*Opdyke, Irene Gut with Jennifer Armstrong. 1999. In my hands, memories of a Holocaust rescuer. Random House.
*Thornton, Jeremy. 2004. Religious intolerance: Jewish immigrants come to America (1881-1914). PowerKids Press. (Jewish holocaust)
*Wolf, Joan M. 2007. Someone Named Eva. Clarion Brooks. (Nazi fiction)
*Auerbacher, Inge. 1993. I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust. Puffin.
*Feltquate, Barbara. 2008. Kiddish Yiddish: Jewish Traditions and Culture in Rhyme. Ill. By Tom Post. Bardolf and Company.
*Gross, Elly Berkovics. 2009. Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust. Scholastic Press.
*Levy, Debbie. 2010. The Year of Goodbyes: A true story of friendship, family and farewells. Hyperion Book.
*Patz, Nancy. 2003. Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat? Dutton Juvenile.
*Edited by Steven J. Rubin. 1997. Telling and remembering ; a century of American Jewish poetry. Beacon.