by Jackie Wullschlager
(Knopf, $40)

In 1973, the painter Marc Chagall returned to his native Russia and was shown a series of theater murals he had created more than half a century earlier. “I was a good artist, wasn’t I?” he remarked to a friend. He certainly was, says author Jackie Wullschlager. Remembered too often today for kitschy assemblages of levitating cows, peasant women, and violins, Chagall generated far more daring images from 1908 to 1922, when he combined  a nostalgic sensibility with modernism’s formal adventurism. The cows and fiddles were always there: The young Chagall built an evocative vocabulary from the visual ephemera of the Jewish shtetl in which he grew up. Sentimentalism wasn’t what the early critics noticed, though. To their eyes, his paintings were fresh, untamed—truly “fantastic.”

Even those familiar with Chagall’s art may be surprised by the “remarkable life” he lived, said Rosemary Hill in the London Times. Born in 1887 in a nation that barred Jews from living in its capital, Chagall escaped his impoverished hometown at 20 and lived secretly under a staircase in St. Petersburg. Following the Russian Revolution, he briefly served as a commissar of arts before fleeing to Berlin, then France, and finally—as Hitler’s army swallowed Europe—to the United States. When Chagall died, in 1985, he had already seen his work enshrined in a French museum that bore his name. Wullschlager’s “outstanding” biography misses nothing, said Mark Archer in The Wall Street Journal. “Combining psychological nuance with critical insight,” it “does full justice” to the drama of events and the power of Chagall’s best work.

Chagall isn’t a very likable character, said Jane Stevenson in the London Daily Telegraph. A mama’s boy in his youth, he attached himself throughout his life to strong women who defended him, coached him, and otherwise indulged “the extreme solipsism of his personality.” Wullschlager, to her credit, lets readers reach negative judgments on their own, said The Economist. Incredibly, she makes us want to keep reading even after it’s become clear that Chagall’s artistic peak is long past. Best of all, she leaves us eager to revisit the “unique burst of color and invention” that marked Chagall in his prime.