Rehabilitating the disabled requires not only physicians, nurses, therapists, psychologists, social workers, and speech pathologists, but also aesthetically appealing surroundings. According to visionary Henry B. Betts, MD, former President of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC),
We do this by surrounding each disabled person with people and an environment that enlivens the senses into productive activity and a positive outlook.
Betts’ philosophy planted the seeds for an inspiring art endeavor: the commission of a site specific tapestry dedicated to all the disabled in the world and designed by one of the greatest living artist of his time, Marc Chagall (1887-1985). It started with a passionate discussion between Dr. Betts and Vivian R. Jacobson, a dynamic Chicagoan and President of The American Friends of Chagall’s Biblical Message Museum, about the healing and motivating value of art. Ms. Jacobson exclaimed that the Institute should have a Chagall. To which Dr. Betts replied “Why not?” Ms. Jacobson then founded The Friends of the Chagall Tapestry to finance and spearhead the project. Corresponding with Chagall, Dr. Betts wrote:
…it would seem to me that your works, above all other artists, have the great aura of hope and faith…. I suspect it is no wonder to you that I feel that you, better than anyone else in the world, could signify to my patients and to the people who come to visit them…the philosophy that I feel.
On accepting the commission in 1984, Chagall commented to Ms. Jacobson: “Now I am a doctor.”
Chagall named his work, Job, after the biblical figure who is often referred to as the patron saint of people with disabilities. It depicts the following scripture from the book of Job (Job 14:7):
For there is hope of a tree if it be cut down, that it will sprout again.
And that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
This message, printed in the back of the tapestry and the corresponding design reflect the optimism Chagall wished to instill for all who entered the doors of the Rehabilitation Institute.
He conceived Job specifically for RIC’s lobby, keeping the size of the tapestry proportionate to its surrounding space, and considering the natural light of the room as well. The tapestry is quite large, 11.5 feet wide by 13 feet high and hangs from the ceiling.
Like many of his other works, Chagall saturated this piece with shades of blue that for him symbolized hope. Dr. Betts described this work as rooted in a “belief in the basic worth of human beings,” aimed at assisting patients with disabilities in finding “whatever is the best in them, building on that, and then moving on to successes they may never have dreamed of before.”
Chagall’s tapestry is devoted to all people with disabilities. In the upper left corner, he created a “tree of people,” a gathering of people in the shape of an evergreen tree. Many depicted in the tree are visibly disabled, using wheelchairs, canes, and other prosthetics.
The drawing and gouache for the tapestry was completed when Chagall was 96. The artist unfortunately passed away before the weaving of the tapestry was finished. French weaver and long-time collaborator Yvette Cauquil-Prince ensured that his vision was captured. Because this was Chagall’s last piece, the French government hesitated to release the tapestry. However, after more than nine months, Ms. Jacobson and the Friends of the Chagall Tapestry were able to convince the French government that the artwork did belong in the lobby of the Rehabilitation Institute. It was dedicated on June 20, 1986.
- Betts, Henry B. “The Cover” JAMA 255, no. 23 (June 20, 1986): 3205.
- Kyllo, David and Vivian R. Jacobson, “Chagall Tapestry Handout” (Chicago: Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, March 2006). http://lifecenter.ric.org/index.php?tray=content&tid=top8&cid=3146
RACHEL C. BAKER is the Director of Educational Programs at the Hektoen Institute and also serves as the Managing Editor for Hektoen International