Marc Chagall Life and Art Periods

"My hands were too soft.. I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of life."

SYNOPSIS

Marc Chagall's poetic, figurative style made him one of most popular modern artists, while his long life and varied output made him one of the most internationally recognized. While many of his peers pursued ambitious experiments that led often to abstraction, Chagall's distinction lies in his steady faith in the power of figurative art, one that he maintained despite absorbing ideas from Fauvism and Cubism. Born in Russia, Chagall moved to France in 1910 and became a prominent figure within the so-called Ecole de Paris. Later he spent time in the United States and the Middle East, travels which reaffirmed his self-image as an archetypal "wandering Jew."

KEY IDEAS

Chagall flirted with many radical modernist styles at various points throughout his career, including Cubism, Suprematism and Surrealism, all of which possibly encouraged him to work in an entirely abstract style. Yet he rejected each of them in succession, remaining committed to figurative and narrative art, making him one of the modern period's most prominent exponents of the more traditional approach.
Chagall's Jewish identity was important to him throughout his life, and much of his work can be described as an attempt to reconcile old Jewish traditions with styles of modernist art. However, he also occasionally drew on Christian themes, which appealed to his taste for narrative and allegory.
In the 1920s, Chagall was claimed as a kindred spirit by the emerging Surrealists, and although he borrowed from them, he ultimately rejected their more conceptual subject matter. Nevertheless, a dream-like quality is characteristic of almost all of Chagall's work; as the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire once said, Chagall's work is "supernatural."
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MARC CHAGALL BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Marc Chagall was the eldest of nine children born to Khatskl Shagal and Feige-Ite in the settlement town of Liozna, near Vitebsk, an area that boasted a high concentration of Jews. Raised in a Hasidic family, Chagall attended local Jewish religious schools - obligatory for Russian Jews during this time, since discrimination policies prohibited mixing of different racial groups - where he studied Hebrew and the Old Testament. Such teachings would later inform much of the content and motifs in Chagall's paintings, etchings and stained-glass work.

During his school days, Chagall adopted the habit of drawing and copying images from books, which quickly developed into a love for art and the choice to pursue it as a career, a decision that did not please his parents. In 1906 Chagall began his tutelage with the famous Russian portrait artist Yehuda Pen, who operated an all-Jewish private school in Vitebsk for students of drawing and painting. Although grateful for the free formal instruction, Chagall left the school after several months.

That same year Chagall moved to St. Petersburg to continue his studies at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting where he briefly apprenticed under the artist and set designer Leon Bakst. Bakst, a devout Jew himself, is believed to have encouraged Chagall to introduce Jewish imagery and themes in his work, a practice that was unpopular at this time, especially given the Russian Empire's hostility towards Jews.

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Marc Chagall Biography

Early Period and Training

Chagall moved to Paris in 1910, just as Cubism was emerging as the leading avant-garde movement. At the impressionable age of 23 and speaking no French, Chagall aligned himself with Cubism and enrolled in classes at a small art academy. In early paintings like The Poet, or Half Past Three and I and the Village (both 1911), Chagall is clearly adopting the abstract forms and dynamic compositions that characterize much of Cubism, yet he came to reject the movement's more academic leanings, instead infusing his work with touches of humor, emotion and cheerful color.

While in Paris, Chagall kept close to his heart his home town of Vitebsk, often using subject matter from memory in his paintings. Subjects included pastoral village scenes, weddings, and fiddlers playing on rooftops. In many of the pictures, the figures seem to float freely in the sky, signatures of Chagall's lyrical and melancholic love of his far-away home.

Parisian scenes also found their way into Chagall's repertoire, with paintings like Les fiancüs de la Tour Eiffel and Paris Through the Window (both 1913), which recall the work of Henri Matisse, and Chagall's friend Robert Delaunay. Complementing these elements, his work contained near-supernatural qualities that are considered key precursors to Surrealism.

Mature period

Marc Chagall Photo

During one of his brief visits to Russia during this time, Chagall fell in love and became engaged to Bella Rosenfeld, who came to be the subject of many of his paintings, including Bella with White Collar (1917). In 1914, Chagall returned to Vitebsk via Berlin (where he enjoyed a well-received exhibition of some 200 works at the Sturm Gallery, all of which he would never recover), with plans to marry Bella and subsequently move back to Paris. The two did marry, but the outbreak of World War I that same year put a stop to their plan to return to Paris, and for the next nine years Chagall and his wife would remain in Russia.

Not long after the war's outbreak, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 occurred, an event that essentially obliged Chagall to remain in Russia and thrust him into the political post of Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk, a teaching position that conflicted with his nonpolitical nature. He exhibited some new paintings in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but his overall work ethic and pace lessened due to the tense climate.

After years of scraping by in Vitebsk, Moscow and other towns, Chagall and Bella had saved enough to move back to Paris in 1923. At this point, Chagall's name had some cachť in modern art circles, affording him the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Notably, Chagall formed a friendship with dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned Chagall to draw and paint multiple religious scenes from the Old Testament and similar sources. In addition to Chagall's Jewish themed works, such as Green Violinist (1923-24) and Dancing Mirjam (1931), he often drew inspiration from the Christian Bible. He also travelled to Palestine and the Holy Lands in 1931. In addition to his many oil canvases and gouaches, such as the iconic White Crucifixion (1938), Chagall created some 100 etchings illustrating scenes from the Bible.

Marc Chagall Image

In the coming years, World War II crippled most of Europe and forced many of its greatest modern artists, both Jew and gentile, to seek refuge in the United States. Hitler's Third Reich reigned over a large portion of the continent, including Vichy France, where the Chagalls were then living, and it is said that Joseph Goebbels personally ordered the artist's paintings to be burned. In 1941, thanks to Chagall's daughter Ida, and the Museum of Modern Art's director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Chagall's name was added to a list of European artists whose lives were at risk and in need of asylum, and that June, Chagall and Bella arrived safely in New York City.

Late period

Just before the war in Europe came to a close, Bella died from a virus infection, and it came to Chagall's attention that Vitebsk had been razed during the German invasion of Russia. Crippled with grief, Chagall's work lessened dramatically, yet he continued to take commissions for theatrical sets and costume designs (a medium for which Chagall received great praise at the time, but which has since garnered little posthumous attention).

Chagall never truly made New York his home, and in 1947 the widower returned to France and settled in the southern city of Vence. He was remarried in 1952, to Valentine 'Vava' Brodsky, and he continued to paint, but his later canvases are remarkably different than his better-known earlier works. His colors and subjects appear more melancholy, and his painterly touches became increasingly lyrical and abstract, almost reverting back in time to Post-Impressionist motifs. This led several mid- and late-century critics to label Chagall's later work "clumsy" and lacking in focus.

The crowning achievements of the last two decades of his life were a series of large-scale commissions. The first came in 1960, for stained-glass windows. These represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and were installed at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. Similar commissions followed in both Europe and the U.S., including the memorial window Peace (1964) for the United Nations, and The America Windows (1977) for the Chicago Institute of Art, which Chagall considered tokens of gratitude for his brief asylum in the U.S. during World War II. Significant commissions for murals also helped define Chagall's late career, and included the ceiling of the Paris Opera House (1963) and the juxtaposed murals The Sources of Music and The Triumphs of Music (1966) for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In 1985 Chagall passed away at the age of 97, by now the last surviving of the original European masters of modern art. He was buried in Saint-Paul, in southeastern France.

LEGACY

Marc Chagall Portrait

Marc Chagall's influence is as vast as the number of styles he assimilated to create his work. Although never completely aligning himself with any single movement, he interwove many of the visual elements of Cubism, Fauvism, Symbolism and Surrealism into his lyrically emotional aesthetic of Jewish folklore, dream-like pastorals, and Russian life. In this sense, Chagall's legacy reveals an artistic style that is both entirely his own and a rich amalgam of prevailing Modern art disciplines. Chagall is also, much like Picasso, a prime example of a modern artist who mastered multiple media, including painting in both oil and gouache, watercolor, murals, ceramics, etching, drawing, theater and costume design, and stained-glass work.

Original content written by Justin Wolf
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MARC CHAGALL QUOTES

"When I am finishing a picture, I hold some God-made object up to it - a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree or my hand - as a final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there's a clash between the two, it's bad art."

"In our life there is a single color, as on an artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love."

"All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."

"Should I paint the earth, the sky, my heart?
The cities burning, my brothers fleeing?
My eyes in tears.
Where should I run and fly, to whom?"

"Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is."
- Pablo Picasso, ca. 1954, following the death of Henri Matisse

"Some become painters by controlling or deflecting their gifts - and even attain greatness - but Chagall was born into paint, into the canvas, into the picture, with his clumsiness and all."
- Clement Greenberg, 1946

Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall Influences

Interactive chart with Marc Chagall's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Leon Bakst
Leon Bakst
Leon Bakst was a late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century Russian-Jewish painter, watercolorist and designer. Although Bakst enjoyed a fairly successful career as an easel painter, his true claim to fame derived from his set and costume designs for the Ballets Russes, and his graphic designs for the influential periodical Mir Iskusstva ("World of Art"), which he co-founded in 1899 with Sergei Diaghilev.

Modern Art Information Leon Bakst
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin was a French Post-Impressionist artist who employed color fields and painterly strokes in his work. He is best known for his primitivist depictions of native life in Tahiti and Polynesia.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Gauguin
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Henri Matisse
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire was a French writer and art critic who in the early twentieth century was a member of the avant-garde group of artists based in the Montparnasse community of Paris, which included Picasso, André Breton and Henri Rousseau. He is credited with coining the term "Surrealism."

Modern Art Information Guillaume Apollinaire
Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay was a French avant-garde painter. Early in his career he was associated with the Expressionist group The Blue Rider along with Kandinsky and Klee. Delaunay's singular style is referred to as Orphism; an approach that combines visual elements of Cubism, Expressionism and figurative abstraction.

Modern Art Information Robert Delaunay
Fernard Léger
Fernard Léger
Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the French painter Fernand Léger developed a style of conical and geometric forms with mechanically smooth edges. Often colorful and punctuated by circles and patterns, his paintings range from still lifes and figures to completely abstract compositions.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fernard Léger
Ambroise Vollard
Ambroise Vollard
Ambroise Vollard was an important dealer, collector, and arts patron in late nineteenth-centry and early twentieth-century Paris. His interests were diverse, spanning Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, and modernism, and included such artists as Renoir, Cézanne, Gaugin, Matisse, and Picasso.

Modern Art Information Ambroise Vollard
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Br√ľcke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fauvism
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.

Modern Art Information Symbolism
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky was a Russian avant-garde painter, photographer, architect and designer. Along with his mentor Kazimir Malevich, Lissitzky helped found Suprematism. His art often employed the use of clean lines and simple geometric forms, and expressed a fascination with Jewish culture. Lissitzky was also a major influence on the Bauhaus school of artists and the Constructivist movement.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information El Lissitzky
Ossip Zadkine
Ossip Zadkine
Ossip Zadkine was a Russian painter and sculptor. After studying art in London, Zadkine moved to Paris in 1910 and became involved in the Cubism movement with the likes of Picasso and Braque.

Modern Art Information Ossip Zadkine
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera was the principal actor in the Mexican Muralism movement and one of Mexico's greatest artists. His large-scale fresco cycles tell the histories of labor, industry, society, and other themes.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Diego Rivera
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information André Breton
Henry McBride
Henry McBride
Henry McBride was an American art critic, who throughout the first half of the twentieth century was a regular contributor for The New York Sun, The Dial, and ARTnews. McBride also founded the art department for The Educational Alliance, an organization serving Eastern European Jews in lower Manhattan.

Modern Art Information Henry McBride
Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes
The famous critic Robert Hughes has admittedly struggled with living in a new world where there is no longer a definitive hotbed of artists living in one city, making one great thing after another. Hughes' views on modern art are fairly traditional, valuing formal training over instinctual gift, and he can be highly critical of art that is ostentatious or seems to cater to the art market.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Hughes
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Suprematism
Yehuda Pen
Yehuda Pen
Yehuda Pen was a Jewish-Belarusian artist and teacher, who in 1891 founded the Jewish Art School in his hometown of Vitebsk, the first private art school in the Russian Empire. Pen is best known for having instructed such modern masters as Chagall, Zadkine and Lissitzky.

Modern Art Information Yehuda Pen
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was an American art historian, collector, and the first director of The Museum of Modern Art. Barr was very influential in MoMA's early years, arranging seminal exhibitions of works by Van Gogh, Léger, the Post-Impressionists and the Cubists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Impressionism
I and the Village
I and the Village

Title: I and the Village (1911)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This early work clearly shows both the Cubist and Fauvist influences at play in Chagall's canvas, yet unlike the works of Picasso or Matisse, Chagall is far more playful and liberal with decorative elements, creating a pastoral paradise out of the Russian countryside. It is an early sign of the approach that would make the artist famous and influential: a blend of the modern and the figurative, with a light, whimsical tone. Chagall depicts a fairy tale in which a cow dreams of a milk maid and a man and wife (one upright, one upside down) frolic in the work fields. Abstraction is at the heart of this work, but it exists to decorate the picture rather than invite analysis of the images.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Paris Through the Window
Paris Through the Window

Title: Paris Through the Window (1913)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Paris Through the Window appears to reflect upon Chagall's feeling of divided loyalties - his love both for modern Paris and for the older patterns of life back in Russia. Hence the figure in the bottom right looks both ways, and the couple below the Eiffel Tower seems to be split apart. Upon first glance, the picture may recall one of Robert Delaunay's many fractured portraits of the Eiffel Tower, rendered in a style often referred to as Orphic Cubism. But Chagall makes no attempt here to dissect the subject or view it from multiple angles. Instead he searches for beauty in the details, creating what writer Guillaume Apollinaire called "sur-naturalist" elements, such as a two-faced head and floating human figure. The end result is a brilliantly balanced and visually appealing snapshot of Paris, juxtaposing the imaginary and the real, all seen through eyes that are both eccentric and loving.


Oil on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Bella with White Collar
Bella with White Collar

Title: Bella with White Collar (1917)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This portrait of Chagall's first wife, Bella, whom he married in the summer of 1915, also doubles as a love letter of sorts. Her demure face and figure stand over a lush pastoral landscape, larger than life, and may have been inspired by the traditional subject, The Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Chagall once remarked that, "Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love." Bella with White Collar, while certainly expressive and vibrant, stands as a lasting example of Chagall's mastery of more traditional subjects and forms, yet he no less maintains the faintest of sur-naturalist elements throughout. At Bella's feet we can see two tiny figures which presumably represent Chagall and the couple's daughter, Ida.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Green Violinist
Green Violinist

Title: Green Violinist (1923-24)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Nostalgia for the artist's rustic village is at the heart of this painting. Fiddlers on rooftops were a popular motif of Chagall's, stemming from his memories of Vitebsk and the Russian countryside he called home as a child. This motif also reflects the artist's deep devotion to his Jewish cultural roots. In Green Violinist, his subject (who may represent the prophet Elijah) is an extension of the rooftops, indicated by the windows and geometric shapes in his pant legs; he is literally a colorful man, a pillar of the community, poised in rhythmic stance. Chagall also recalls with this painting the belief among the Chabad Hasidim in Vitebsk that music and dance represented a communion with God. Incidentally, the 1964 musical "Fiddler on the Roof" got its name from Chagall's paintings.


Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

White Crucifixion
White Crucifixion

Title: White Crucifixion (1938)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Although Chagall became well known for his religious and Biblical motifs, the blatant Christian symbolism present in White Crucifixion and other works (particularly his stained-glass windows for several churches) is surprising given Chagall's devout Orthodox Jewish background. However, this work is a clear indication of Chagall's faith and his response to the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe at this time; here Jesus's suffering parallels that of his people. Jesus wears a Jewish prayer shawl, and whilst he suffers on the cross, Jewish figures on all sides of him suffer as well, fleeing from marauding invaders who burn a synagogue. The painting rather poignantly inverts the notion that the crucifixion is purely a Christian symbol - indeed that might only serve as a reminder of what divides Jews from Christians. Instead it makes the Crucifixion into a sign of their common suffering.


Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Peace
Peace

Title: Peace (1964)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Following the sudden death of the UN's secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, killed in a plane crash in 1961, the Staff of the United Nations set up a Committee and a Foundation to provide a "living memorial" to Hammarskjold and all those who died in the cause of world peace. The committee invited Chagall to contribute a piece of his work, and it was soon decided that the monument would be a free-standing piece of stained glass. The breadth and detail of the window is staggering, comprised of free-floating figures and faith-based symbols throughout, co-existing blissfully in a heaven-meets-earth setting. Chagall considered this window, today referred to as the "Chagall Window," not just a memorial to one man, but a thank-you card of sorts to the country that granted him asylum during his time of need in World War II.


Stained glass window - United Nations Building, New York

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.