Vivian and Chagall




As Chicago anticipates the 2017 opening of the new Rehabilitation Institute, to be called the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, author Vivian R. Jacobson is remembering a day in June 1986 when Marc Chagall’s magnificent Job tapestry was unveiled in the lobby of the current Institute. The only artwork executed specifically for the disabled, it has inspired patients, just as its legendary Medical Director, the late Dr. Henry Betts, had known it would.


Job, a tapestry by Marc Chagall for the Rehabilitation Institute.

Job, a tapestry by Marc Chagall for the Rehabilitation Institute.

Jacobson has lectured for over thirty years about Chagall’s message of hope to the world. Her delightful book Sharing Chagall: A Memoir reflects Vivian’s deep friendship with the artist, developed while she served as President of the American Friends of Chagall’s Biblical Message Museum.

At that time, Chicago had Chagall’s America Windows stained glass (installed in the Art Institute in 1978) and the outdoor mosaic The Four Seasons, introduced four years earlier at First National Plaza. Vivian dreamed of bringing a third artwork—a tapestry—to this city she knew Chagall admired greatly. The artist, weaver, and most of the principals involved on the project are no longer living, but Vivian, through her book and website, keeps alive those magical days when Chagall fell in love with Chicago.


Dr. Henry Betts.

Dr. Henry Betts.

“Dr. Betts, who collected art around the world for the Institute that he headed, said that he had always loved Chagall and wanted a work for his patients. He had written to Chagall: ‘Job is a proclamation. People in challenging circumstances can find their way in the world and pull from themselves whatever is best in them, build, and move on to successes they never dreamed before.’

“I told Henry, ‘If you want an artwork, I will get you one.’ I met with Eleanor Wood Prince, an outstanding leader and philanthropist, whom I had met during the Chuck Percy campaign. She asked me to head the group to bring a Chagall Tapestry—which would sadly be his last—to the Institute. Chagall had visited the Rehabilitation Institute in 1974 and met with Dr. Betts several times. He brought his creative energy to every aspect of the tapestry and collaborated with the weaver Madame Yvette Cauquil-Prince as he had on 32 other tapestries.”

Vivian was a young swimming teacher in Chicago when she stepped up to head the campaign to bring Chagall to the Institute, but her passion for the artist’s work began at an early age.

“As a child, I first became fascinated by works of Marc Chagall at the Art Institute. His romantic paintings of flowers, floating lovers, angels, and his autobiographical masterpieces of his early life in Russia took on new meaning to me as I visited his work in other museums. As an adult and a life member of the Chicago Chapter of Hadassah, I knew of his magnificent stained glass interpretation of The Twelve Tribes of Israel at the Hadassah Hospital Synagogue in Jerusalem.” 

In 1974, Vivian heard that Chagall would be in town for the dedication of the outdoor mosaic, given by Mr. and Mrs. William Wood Prince in honor of his father Frederick. Vivian fascinatingly relates in her book how she first met the artist: 

“If Chagall was going to be in Chicago, why couldn’t the Chicago Chapter of Hadassah have a fundraising event with him as our honored guest? Through the good graces of Senator Charles Percy, I called Eleanor, whom I remembered from the campaign as a very gracious, sincere, and elegant woman who I saw energetically stuffing envelopes while her silver chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce was parked nearby under the ‘L’ tracks.

“She suggested that I write a note in French extending the invitation, which she would give to Chagall personally. Several weeks later, she let me know that he had accepted the invitation. I thought years later that he probably accepted because he greatly admired the work of Hadassah women. 

“There were conditions included in his acceptance: it would be at my home and there would be only 12 guests invited, with absolutely no press. And since Chagall liked several different kinds of sweets, especially chocolate, the selection should include a choice of chocolate pastries and candies.”


Marc Chagall by Pierre Choumoff (c. 1920).

Marc Chagall by Pierre Choumoff (c. 1920).

Vivian’s first impression of Chagall when he and his wife Vava walked in the door was how young she thought the artist looked in his late eighties. Little did Vivian know that day that for the next 11 years she would become intricately involved in his life and work. She writes:

“Mrs. Wood Prince approached me several months after our intimate reception and laid out her plans for a new association she was establishing in the United States to represent the Chagall Biblical Message Museum in Nice. She asked me to become the secretary and six months later, I became President of the American Friends on her request. The goal was to increase membership in the Museum through sales of signed Chagall posters, concerts, and exhibitions.”


La Promenade des Anglais by Marc Chagall.

La Promenade des Anglais by Marc Chagall.

“I traveled several times a year to visit Chagall, often introducing groups from the United States to the Museum. I always brought him Marshall Field’s Frango mints which he doted on, and he would say, ‘J’aime Chicago.’”

Vivian and her husband Ralph attended Chagall’s 95th birthday party at his home, La Colline, in the hills of Provence. Two days later they visited Chagall at his home again.

“The artist was in his atelier when we arrived and I went right to the point with Vava, telling her that Dr. Betts wanted a tapestry for the Institute (which Chagall had visited eight years earlier). Though she was his business administrator, she suggested that I ask him directly, which meant, I think, that she gave her instant approval. When he walked into the room, he said in French, ‘The Bible is the greatest book ever written!’ I continued his thought: ‘Speaking of the Bible, would you design a tapestry based on the Bible for a hospital that is dedicated to the healing of the disabled people of the world?’ With a nod of his head, his chin to his chest, he signified his approval.”

To this day, Don Olson, then Director of Education, remembers the impact the Chagall project had on the Institute.

“Vivian was a powerhouse who kept the project alive no matter what. Henry Betts believed that art was healing and that Chagall was like a doctor. The Tapestry was to go in the lobby, which was our busiest spot. Throughout the years, I have seen patients studying the work and drawing comfort from it.”

Don, who worked closely with Vivian for four years on the project, was quite literally the person who brought the tapestry to the Institute. 

“It had been tremendously difficult getting the tapestry out of France. Chagall had died and the country’s tax laws did not recognize the fact that he had given the artwork to a foreign institution. The shipping had to be done in a mysterious way.

When I arrived at the airport to pick it up, I was expecting that a large tapestry would be impossible to carry, but instead I found a little tin box awaiting me. When we unrolled its contents on the floor of the airplane hanger, we found a huge tapestry and were overwhelmed by all the beautiful Chagall colors.”

At the time of the Institute Dedication, Dr. Betts wrote:

“Chagall chose the name Job for the tapestry and it is saturated with the special blue that for Chagall symbolized hope. In keeping with the message of Job, it shows the community of mankind giving to each other, throughout their long struggle, the continual hope of renewal. Chagall’s happy comment to Vivian Jacobson upon acceptance of the commission has come to fruition: ‘Now I am a doctor.’ We expect that Chagall’s inspired image, interpreted into a million strands of color, will positively affect the life of each of the thousands of disabled persons who pass through our doors.”

Henry Betts’s prediction has come true. To Vivian, it is easy to see how this has happened.

“No artist speaks to his audience as Marc Chagall does. In this time of world strife, you realize that Chagall was conveying that everyone in the world should have peace in his heart.

“Chagall wasn’t like any other artist. He had a message that he conveyed through his work: hope, peace, reconciliation, and love. You could describe him in three words—passion, passion, passion. The world knew him as a great artist; I knew him as a great guy. I remember his hand holding mine when he was 95.”


Vivian and Ralph Jacobson.

Vivian and Ralph Jacobson.

Vivian and her husband Ralph now live in Pinehurst, North Carolina. She continues to lecture throughout the country on Marc Chagall as she has done with love and enthusiasm since 1978.


Visit her website to order Sharing Chagall: A Memoir and learn about her upcoming e-book publication and future lectures.