Marc Chagall
Biography of Jewish-Russian Painter, Printmaker.
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The Juggler (1943)
Private Collection.
For other folk-art style works
similar to those by Chagall, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Contents

Biography
Youth
St Petersburg
Paris
World War I: Trapped in Russia
Commissar of Art (Vitebsk)
Solo Exhibitions in Europe
World War II: Trapped in Russia
Death of Bella Chagall
Settles in France: Marries Valentina Brodsky
Stained Glass
Final Period
Collections

NOTE: For analysis of works by Jewish folk artists like Marc Chagall,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).



View from a Window, Vitebsk (1914)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Chagall's immortal image of the
Jewish shtetl.

Biography

Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest Russian artists of all time, the Jewish painter Marc Chagall excelled in a variety of mediums including painting, illustration, ceramics and stained glass art, as well as tapestry art and printmaking. In his oil painting, he drew inspiration from traditional Jewish art, as well as both Eastern and Western culture, the Bible, and the Russian Revolution. During his lengthy career, he explored numerous different styles, such as Fauvism (Matisse), Expressionism (Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine), Cubism (Picasso), Futurism (Umberto Boccioni), Suprematism (Malevich), Symbolism (Gauguin) and Surrealism (Andre Breton), from which he created his own unique version of modern art. The importance of his work is evidenced by regular exhibitions around the world, and his influence on contemporary art. He is now regarded as one of the greatest 20th century painters. Paintings by Marc Chagall are widely available online in the form of poster art.


The Village and I (1911)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

WHAT IS VISUAL ART?
See: Art: Definition and Meaning.

RUSSIAN ARTISTS
For biographies of other painters
from Russia, Ukraine & Siberia,
see these resources:
Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887)
Russia's finest portraitist.
Konstantin Savitsky (1844-1905)
Critical realist genre painter.
Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
Greatest Russian genre-painter.
Vasily Surikov (1848-1916)
Russia's greatest history painter.
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
Symbolist painter.
Isaac Levitan (1860-1900)
Landscape painter.
Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930)
Genre painter, critical realism.
Valentin Serov (1865-1911)
Russia's greatest Impressionist.

Youth

Born Moshe (or Moishe Shagal) in the Hasidic Jewish shtetl settlement of Vitebsk, a city in northern Belarus, or White Russia, it was thanks to his mother Feige-Ita that Marc Chagall escaped the poverty of his upbringing and realized his natural talent as an artist. She bribed the local authorities to get her son a state education (from which most Jews were barred), and found money for lessons in drawing and music. While still a schoolboy, Chagall met the established painter Yehuda Pen who recognized his talent and, in 1906, after Chagall's matriculation from school, accepted him as a pupil. For the sake of Chagall's art education, Pen also encouraged him to move to the Russian capital St Petersburg, which Chagall somehow managed in 1907, together with his friend Victor Mekler.

WORLDS TOP ARTISTS
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Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

St Petersburg

Once in St. Petersburg, he enrolled at one of the schools organised by the Society for Promotion of Artists, where he improved his drawing technique under Nikolas Roerich. In 1908, he transferred to the well-known Art School of Ekaterina Zvantseva, where he trained under Leon Bakst - later the artistic director for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. (For more details see: Russian Painting, 19th-Century.) One of his early unrefined works from this period is Young Girl on a Sofa (1907), a portrait of his sister. Over the next few years he made significant improvements on this, in pictures such as Red Nude Sitting Up (1908), Self-Portrait with Brushes (1909), Russian Wedding (1909) and, Birth (1910). In 1909, at the age of 22, while visiting his native city, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld, the educated daughter of a jeweller. Although she was only 14 at the time, they fell in love immediately. As age and circumstance made further contact between them impossible, Chagall returned to St. Petersburg.

Paris

In 1910, assisted by sponsorship from the lawyer Maxim Winawer, Chagall travelled to Paris, the art centre of the world and the Mecca for all aspiring artists. Chagall's initial impression of the French capital was not favourable, however he soon met a number of other Russian expressionist painters like Wassily Kandinsky, the poverty stricken Chaim Soutine and the sculptor Ossip Zadkine, as well as the writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), and the Parisian artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Robert Delaunay. Gradually finding Paris to his taste, Chagall set about studying the artistic innovations of the past half-century, notably Impressionism, Pointillism, and Fauvism. He also witnessed at first hand the developing aesthetic of Cubism, which he drew on for works like I and the Village (1911), The Poet (1911) and Adam and Eve (1912).

As it was, neither the Impressionists, nor the Cubists fired his imagination with their scientific ideas of composition and colour. Instead, Chagall developed his own idiom from a combination of Expressionism, Symbolism and Surrealism, employing imagery from the daily life of the shtetl to convey a moral and philosophical message. Examples of Chagall's early Paris paintings include: To My Betrothed (1911), Interior II (1911), The Soldier Drinks (1911-12), The Cattle Dealer (1912) and The Fiddler (1912-1913), most of which received mixed reviews. For more about Chagall's links with early expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

During the period 1910-1914, Chagall exhibited several times in the Spring and Autumn Salon of the French Academy and in the Salon des Independants, and in 1914 Herwarth Walden - the owner of the famous periodical and picture-gallery Der Sturm (The Storm) and a central figure within the expressionist movement - staged Chagall's first solo exhibition in Berlin which was both well-received and financially successful. (For the best examples of German Expressionism, and much more, see: Expressionist Paintings.)

Chagall's absence in Paris meant that he did not participate in the two major Moscow exhibitions, organized by the Knave of Diamonds group (in 1910) and the Donkey's Tail group (in 1912). He did exhibit however with the World of Art (Mir iskusstva) society on his return.

World War I: Trapped in Russia

After his successful show at the Sturm Gallery, Chagall visited Russia, only to find himself trapped there on the outbreak of World War I, in August 1914. At first he remained in Vitebsk where, in 1915, he finally married his sweetheart Bella with whom he had a daughter Ida in 1916, the same year they moved to St Petersburg. He continued painting, completing a number of unusually realistic pictures like Praying Jew (Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914) and Self-Portrait (1914), along with genre-works and paintings of rural life, such as The Smolensk Newspaper (1914), Window in the Country (1915), The Birthday (1915), Bella with White Collar (1917) and Cemetery Gates (1917). While in St Petersburg, he dabbled with the Primitivism and Rayonism of Michael Larionov and Natalia Goncharova in works such as The Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkot; 1916). A little later he also experimented with Suprematism in pictures like Peasant Life (1917) and Composition with Circles and Goats (1920). At this time he also developed a fascination for Renaissance art, which he drew on in his unconventional way, when painting Promenade (1917) and Double Portrait with Wine-Glass (1917-1918).

Commissar of Art in Vitebsk

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in late 1917, he was appointed Commissar of Art in Vitebsk, where he began organizing exhibitions and opening museums of art, attracting major artists to the city, such as Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and El Lissitzky (1890-1941). However, not being a natural organizer, he resigned his post in 1920 and moved to Moscow. Here, life was altogether harder and he scraped a living teaching, designing stage decorations and painting murals. Meanwhile, Soviet attitude to art was becoming more politicized: modern Russian art (like Chagall's) was out, naturalism was becoming the new style. As a result, he received permission to emigrate, and in 1922, at the age of 35, left for Berlin. He would not see Russia again for another 50 years.

Solo Exhibitions in Europe

After settling up with Herwarth Walden in Berlin, where he also completed his illustrated autobiography My Life (published 9 years later), Chagall moved to Paris, taking up an offer from Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer to illustrate Nikolai Gogol's book Dead Souls. There now followed a period of peace and prosperity for the Chagalls. As a result, the dark, foreboding compositions and colours that had characterized his previous works began to be replaced with a brighter idiom, as exemplified by The Watering Trough (1925), Peasant Life (1925), Bella in Mourillon (1926), Equestrienne (1927) and Fruits and Flowers (1929) and Lovers in the Lilacs (1931). In addition, as an established member of the Ecole de Paris, he enjoyed several solo exhibitions in Paris, including a major retrospective (1924). Three years later he had his first solo exhibition in New York. In the 1930s he visited British Palestine, as well as Holland (where he studied many works by Rembrandt), Switzerland, Poland and Spain (where he saw paintings by El Greco).

This period of calm was duly shattered by the rise of Nazism in Germany, where Chagall's paintings was labelled Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst), to which his artistic response was Solitude (1933), depicting the deep depression experienced by Jews amid the gathering storm.

Another significant work of the pre-war period was In The Revolution (1937) which features the chaos and carnage of Bolshevism. Then in 1938, he produced a masterpiece - the White Crucifixion, an eloquent and evocative depiction of the commonality of Christianity and Judaism, which combined a crucified Christ with images of Jewish persecution - and a last angst-ridden canvas The Three Candles (1938-40).

World War II

Less than a year after the outbreak of war, Germany invaded and occupied France. Chagall fled, together with his family and paintings, to the south of France, and although he was arrested by the Vichy authorities, pressure from the United States secured his release and in June 1941 he sailed for America. He remained here for five years, mostly in New York, painting works that reflected his deep unease with anti-semitic events in Europe. Examples include, The Obsession (1943), Listening to the Cock (1944) and The Wedding (1944). He also completed another masterpiece, The Juggler (1943; private Collection).

Death of Bella Chagall

Chagall then suffered his greatest personal tragedy: in 1944, Bella Chagall died, from a virus infection. Distraught at the loss of his beloved partner and muse, Chagall stopped painting for nearly a year. As it was, in 1946, the painter met Virginia Haggard McNeill, and their relationship revived him.

Settles in France: Marries Valentina Brodsky

Returning to Paris in 1946, he finally completed The Falling Angel (1923-1947), a painting he had worked on for almost a quarter of a century, which combined images of Biblical and Torah lore with those of the modern world, along with a number of Chagall's personal motifs. In 1950, in keeping with his new desire for seclusion, he moved to Cap-Ferrat on the Cote d'Azur, and in 1952 - following the departure of Virginia Haggard McNeill - married the forceful, controlling Valentina Brodsky (Vava), who isolated him in a new home in Provence, censored his letters and helped to poison him against his daughter Ida.

Stained Glass

Happy, or reconciled, to this prison-like existence, Chagall devoted himself to painting, along with some book illustration, and also - in line with Vava's desire to "Christianize" him - executed designs for stained-glass windows for churches like Metz Cathedral (1958), the Zurich Minster (1972), the Rheims Cathedral (1974), the All Saints Church in Tudeley, England (1978) and St Stephen's Cathedral in Main, Germany (1978). Seemingly oblivious to the significance of all this, Chagall also accepted commissions to design stained glass and murals for many public buildings in Israel.

Final Period

During the 1950s Chagall visited numerous countries, including the Holy Land, England, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, the United States, among others. Now regarded as one of the great modern artists, in 1959, he was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts, and received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Glasgow. Finally, in 1973, at the invitation of the Soviet authorities, Chagall visited his native country for the first time since he left in 1922. In his honour, the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the Tretyakov Gallery Moscow hosted a major exhibition of his works - an event which (given the Jewish persecutions of the day) remains inexplicable to many.

Chagall's final works are simple but highly expressive, an approach exemplified by paintings like The Fall of Icarus (1975), The Grand Parade (1979-80), and Couple on a Red Background (1983). In 1977, in recognition of his services to French art, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour by the French government. Chagall passed away in Provence in 1985. Although his wife Valentina arranged his burial in a Catholic cemetery, his daughter Ida Chagall ensured that the Jewish funeral prayer, the Kaddish, was recited at the end of the ceremony.

Collections

Works by Marc Chagall hang in many of the best art museums throughout the world, including the Guggenheim Museum New York. His Interior of a Synagogue in Safed (1931) is in the Jewish Art Museum, Jerusalem.

 

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