Chagall’s Illustrations of La Fontaine: The Milkmaid and Her Pail
In this charming illustration of La Fontaine’s fable of The Milkmaid and Her Pail, Chagall depicts an enduring fact about human nature; In dreaming of what we desire in the future, we’re apt to float so far away that we neglect the present—so much so that we ruin our chances of realizing those dreams. In this fable, a milkmaid makes her way to the market with a pail of milk balanced on her head. She begins to fantasize about how she’ll use the money from the milk to buy a hundred eggs, which will hatch into chickens, which will give her an income to buy a pig, which she can sell to buy a cow and calf, “whom I will see leaping about the herd!” The milkmaid, at this last thought, herself makes a leap into the air, causing the milk pail to tumble to the ground. The narrator concludes, “Adieu, calf, cow, pig, chickens.”
In this etching, Chagall shows us the milkmaid at the crucial moment in the fable—just before, or perhaps during her “fall.” Placed in the center of the picture, she seems to float just above the ground. In the upper left corner, a farm and several cows are depicted standing peacefully in a bank of clouds. This is the substance of the milkmaid’s dream. But her own expression is vacant, and perhaps mildly distressed; her arms are strangely akimbo. Looking closer, we realize clouds are under her feet, too. However, her feet do not touch them. Instead, she seems to float just above the clouds. Perhaps Chagall is showing us the milkmaid mid-leap, just as disaster strikes.
Chagall’s execution of this story is masterly, but his representation is ambiguous. Do we see the milkmaid here mid-leap, already conscious of the impending disaster? Or have we caught her still dreaming, floating among the clouds, and looking upward toward the objects of her desire? The formal elements of the picture (Chagall’s use of dark and light and texture) help to give us some clues. The milkmaid, surrounded by shading, clearly has a weight to her that will never allow her to rise upward as ethereally as the objects of her fantasy (the floating farm and cows above her.) Chagall, in this etching, has given us a glimpse of human folly that we cannot but see in ourselves also.
Sophy Schulman — St. John’s College Student