The White Crucifixion

Michael Dean

A novel about Marc Chagall

Sample Passages

  • Part II: Paris, 1913 - The Studio

    The corridor darkens – there is no electric light here, just as there is no gas and no running water. Already my nostrils are wrinkling from the assault of the soap balls from Bon Marchè, put down to kill the smell from the abattoir.
    I walk on past the first studios, which being nearest the door are also the cheapest. Here is the Litvak Kikoine, then the bourgeois Indenbaum, my fellow from Vitebsk. Then next along the corridor, Avram Markovich. There is a sprawling pile of rubbish outside his door. Then the bitter Krémègne.
    The beautiful Amedeo Modigliani – Modi – is now on the ground floor, too, where all the sculpture studios are, since he made his wild decision to stop painting and be a sculptor.
    I reach my door. I moved to this atelier only recently. I used to be next door to Modi, but the screams of ecstasy from his many lovers was distracting from both sleep and work. Faintly in the distance I could hear Kisling’s phonograph playing tinny notes, just above the sound of my own breathing.
    All the studios have a letter on the door. Mine is the letter A. None of the ateliers at La Ruche have locks. People wander in and out. Thefts of paint, canvases, food and clothes happen all the time. I hate that. I myself do not steal; I do not expect to be stolen from.
    Every time I go out, I wind a piece of old wire round the door handle then jam it in the door jamb as I shut the door. It would only delay an interloper for seconds, I realise that, but most of the painter-magpie-thieves have at least a modicum of embarrassment about stealing from their fellows, so a few seconds hold up, making their crime obvious to a passer-by, might be enough. Or so I hoped.
    Sinking dread swept through me. The wire had definitely been tampered with – no doubt, no doubt at all. It was hanging down. I had not left it hanging down. I tried to persuade myself I had left it hanging down, but I had not.
    I loosened the wire, put it in the pocket of my blue linen jacket and went into my studio. I saw nothing, because my eyes were shut in fear. I was even trembling, slightly. I could smell the mix of linseed oil, turpentine and my own sweat which told me I was home.

    I slammed the studio door shut behind me, as if to shut out the intruder I feared had already got in. I looked round wildly. The first check was always the brushes. Thanks to the Vinaver largesse, I could afford a couple of sable brushes. I also had a hog’s hair filbert for close work, much envied by some.
    They were both still there, still caked with paint, in fact, from the Self Portrait with Seven Fingers, the painting I was working on at the time. There was permanent white from my painted nose on the little filbert, cadmium yellow for the floorboards on the sable.
    Then I lost myself for a while staring at my painting of The Cattle Dealer. The cattle dealer is sitting on a cart, being pulled by a horse. A cow is riding on the cart. The cattle dealer’s wife is walking behind the cart, carrying a calf. The wife is painted as larger than the man and the cart because size means importance.
    The cattle dealer is twisted in his seat looking back to where they have come from. The wife’s head is also twisted, looking back. Even the cow on the cart is facing the way they have come, not the way they are going. Only the horse, the means of impulsion, is facing forward.
    This is what I am saying: Marc Chagall, the grandson of a cattle dealer, is being pulled forward into his life in Paris but he and his beloved Bella are looking back to Vitebsk. The overall message, however, is a glorious pantheistic statement: The cow has the spark of the divine so is entitled to her place of honour and rest on the cart.
    I breathed out, then breathed hard, steadying myself. I was sweating. The Cattle Dealer was untouched, I was sure of it. I lit the kerosene lamp and looked round the studio. Studios at The Hive were not called ‘the coffin’ for nothing, air was one of many shortages.
    Everything in here is shaped by the hexagons which honeycomb together to form the basic hive shape of the building. Each atelier, each studio, is one such hexagon. To make the most of the natural light, painters who use it to paint (I don’t, I paint at night) have to pose models at the summit of the triangle shape, below a ‘metro’ shaped arch with a window above it. All the studios are like this, all identical.
    My breathing slowed, although I could still hear it. I could hear a distant train clatter past through the Gare de Montparnasse, too. Then the silence landed. I let my eyes sweep round my oddly-shaped world, a world full of corners and angles.
    The bed is upstairs on a balcony, where a bay overlooks the garden. Like everything else, it has been there for more than ten battered years. It is reached by a scuffed and scraped stepladder. I was the bed’s sole inhabitant, a thought I did not let myself dwell on.

    Want to read on? Buy The White Crucifixion from the top of this page, bookshops or Amazon.

Sample Information


The novel is told from Marc Chagall’s point of view and in it he reflects back on his life and the tumultuous events of the twentieth century that shaped his life and his work

The White Crucifixion starts with Chagall’s difficult birth in Vitebsk 1887, in the present-day Belarus, and tells the surprising story of how the eldest son of a herring schlepper became enrolled in art school where he quickly gained a reputation as ‘Moyshe, the pai nting wonder’.

The novel paints a vivid picture of a Russian town divided by belief and wealth, rumours of pogroms never far away, yet bustling with talented young artists.

In 1913 Chagall relished the opportunity to move to Paris to take up residence in the artist colony ‘The Hive’ (La Ruche). The Yiddish-speaking artists (Ėcole Juive) living there were all poor. The Hive had no electric light, or running water and yet many of its artists were to become famous, among them Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Osip Zadkine.

The novel vividly portrays the dynamics of an artist colony, its pettiness, friendships and the constant battle to find the peace and quiet to work.

When Chagall’s great love Bella moves into the Hive, he muses: Yes, I am in love, yes I am happy, but I am and I remain an artist, a painter, first and foremost. I cannot lose the totality of myself in Bella because something of me must always remain outside and aloof from anything which is not my art.

In 1914 Chagall and his wife Bella made what was supposed to be a fleeting visit to his beloved Vitebsk, only to be trapped there by the outbreak of the First World War, the subsequent Russian revolution and the establishment of the communist regime which was increasingly hostile towards artists like Chagall.

Yet, Chagall kept on painting, and the novel provides a fascinating account of what inspired some of his greatest work. He eventually managed to return to France, only to be thwarted by another world war  which proved disastrous for the people he knew in Vitebsk, the people in his paintings, including his uncle Neuch, the original ‘fiddler on the roof’.

The White Crucifixion is a fictionalised account of the roller-coaster life in terrible times of one of the most enigmatic artists of the twentieth century.

Enjoy these pictures from the launch party at the Artworkers Guild.

Enjoy Artist’s White Crucifixion Made a Marc on Novelist a profile of Michael Dean which was published in the Jewish Telegraph on 19 January 2018.

‘The priority for me is always to write a novel but at the same time stay true to real life.’ – From an interview with Michael Dean in The Gazette

The White Crucifixion was published on 22 February 2018. For more information or review copies please contact the publisher:, +44(0)7792611929.

ISBN: 9781907320736
Number of pages: 256
Price: £0


‘I really loved this book, for the story, for the characters, but above all for teaching me about a life and an era I didn’t know before. I will seek out the author’s other novels and would recommend this one wholeheartedly to book groups. 5/5’ – Rebecca Kershaw on Nudge

‘Readers who enjoy art and history will appreciate this lively account of the Bohemian existence. It is a good choice for book groups as well. Public libraries and synagogue libraries collecting fiction should consider it.’ – Barbara Bibel AJL Reviews

‘Good news for fans of the brilliant but enigmatic artist, Marc Chagall: this impeccably-researched novel will illuminate the dark corners of his turbulent life.’ – Jane Harris, author of Gillespie and I & Sugar Money

‘Dean’s shimmering palette of prose brings the world and work of Chagall to vivid, engrossing life.’ – E.M. Powell, author of the Fifth Knight Medieval Thriller Series

‘Wonderfully vivid depiction of Marc Chagall’s life and work’
‘Brilliantly and evocatively written’ – Patricia O’Reilly, author of The Interview

‘The White Crucifixion splendidly evokes the long life and exuberant imagery of the artist Marc Chagall, from childhood poverty in Russia through studies and friendships in the Paris of Modigliani and Apollinaire, and the dream-like return to his homeland, love, marriage and dreadful danger. Surreally accompanied by the Prophet Elijah we see him struggle for acceptance while great events change the world he lived in. A portrait of a century of upheaval and a life full of courage and colour.’ –  Jenny Barden, author of The Lost Duchess

‘The story is beautifully subjective, it puts us right in puddle of neuroses and emotion that is the artist. Which is wonderful, because this book is always heartfelt and never dry. It doesn’t just tell us what happened, it shows us what it feels like. I loved that. It’s so evocative of time and place. And it’s also often very funny.’ – Hermione Flavia on CravenWild

‘I initially felt embarrassed as a voyeur but I was so enthralled with the experience I lost myself. The character descriptions and choice of content were impeccable.’ –  Bridget Davis

‘This fictional biography of Marc Chagall is written in a style that mimics his paintings, full of life, vitality, and enmeshed in the Jewish tradition. A peak at some of his fellow painters and sculptors added to the intrigue.’ –  Snash

‘It shows us a man totally devoted to his genius and unalterable in his choice of colours. It’s a book that makes you pause for a while. ’ –  Vienna Max

From LibraryThing Early Reviewers

‘Michael Dean’s obvious passion for his subjects, meticulous research and ability to tell a darn good story makes for a first class reading experience.’ – Helen on goodreads

‘It succeeds as an evocative, layered story of one man’s drive to describe his world through art. Its subject isn’t just about the painter and his work but an insight into Jewish history through the lens of Chagall’s subjects – often based on Jewish tales and proverbs – and how the Russian Revolution, initially seen as a positive, anti-oppressive move, became another means of oppression.’ – Emma Lee on her blog

‘With a vibrant sense of time and two places, this is an entrancing vision of the lives of Chagall and other artists whose creative drive was fuelled by political turbulence and persecution, personal hardship and tragedy. Lovers of art and history will find it fascinating.’ – Isabel Costello on her blog the Literary Sofa

‘For Chagall enthusiasts, The White Crucifixion: A novel about Marc Chagall may be exactly what they have longed for and, knowing about his life, will be able to differentiate fiction and fact.  And for those who haven’t heard of him, are indifferent to him or don’t like art, it’s a lively read: intriguing in parts, interesting in others, and Michael Dean′s expert writing is full of colour.’ – John Park on his blog Words Across Time

‘I found this such an interesting historical novel.  I learned a lot about Chagall’s art.’ – Lizzy’s Literary Life

‘I loved getting to know Marc Chagall through this book – learning about the personal so that we could better understand his passion.  Michael Dean has written a beautiful novel chock full of emotion, history, and creativity – I loved it!’ –  Nadia on her blog A Bookish Way of Life

‘This novel demonstrates considerable skill in uniting ‘large canvas’ political events of the early 20th century with the intimate scale of individual experience and creative endeavour.

Lovers of art and history will find it fascinating and any ‘creative’ will find something to relate to in this rich and colourful story.’ –  Isabel Costello on the Literary Sofa

‘I found the story is superbly written and it flows very smoothly which makes it a great pleasure to read. In fact at times I found it hard to put down!’ – Sara Boorman in a second review on nudge-book

‘The writing combines the first person narrative with the historical detail and loving descriptions of places and people, giving Chagall a unique and distinctive voice and turning him into a real person, with defects and qualities, with his pettiness and his peculiar sense of humour. Although we might not like him or fully understand him, we get to walk in his shoes and to share in his sense of wonder and in his urgency to create.’ – Olga on her booklikes blog

‘The book will be of interest to anyone wishing to learn about Chagall and what inspired some of his greatest work.

It mirrors its subject: hypersensitive, emotional, fearful – he wore make-up in Paris – and only at ease when painting.’ – Alan Fisk for the Historical Novel Society

‘As an art lover, I have a penchant for novels set in the art world and this was one of the most personally enriching reads of my year. It was moving, fascinating and in addition to teaching me a lot about #MarcChagall and his contemporaries.’ – Literary Sofa has chosen The White Crucifixion as one of the books of 2018