The last great painter of Europe’s first wave of modernists, Marc Chagall was a Russian-French artist known for his figurative style. His works had always been poetic in nature and his longevity in the industry made him a widely renowned artist internationally. His artistic medium was varied ranging from illustrations, stage design, tapestry, oil painting to stained glass.
Chagall distinctively pursued figurative art unlike his contemporaries who experimented with their style, and thus ended up producing semi- and abstract works of art. Nonetheless, at some point, he did absorb the ideas popularized by Cubists and Fauvists. Overall, he was a sought-after artist and his amazing talent in combining the traditional and modern art introduced him to several secular and non-secular commissions.
For example, as a stained glass artist, he was contracted by the cathedrals of Metz and Reims to produce windows for them. He even designed some windows for the Israel-based Jerusalem Windows and the United Nations. As a theater designer, he produced large-size ceiling paintings for the Paris Opera. But likewise to other early 20th century artists, he survived through the atrocities of World War I by seeking refuge in different countries like Russia, Germany and France. As though a blessing in disguise, while away, he developed his own modern art style using the traditional culture of Eastern European Jews as a main inspiration.
Even though Chagall was considered a figurative artist and traditional by style he still possessed the traits of an avant-garde. He became a member of an avant-garde group that founded the Vitebsk Arts College in the early 1920’s. Art historians basically distinguish Chagall by his innovative modernism and identity as an artist of Jewish folk culture. One instance that would prove this distinction was when the painter displayed his ability in synthesizing all modern art forms, which as a result, paved the way for the foundation of Surrealism.
Examples of Chagall’s major works and prints included I and the Village (1911), Calvary (1912), Bella with White Collar (1917), The Poet (1911), Remembrance (1914), and Quarrel (1914).
Marc Zakharovich Chagall was born in July 6, 1887 with a birth name Moishe Shagal. His family was Jewish in origin who lived in Liozna, Vitebsk Belarus – then part of the Russian Empire. Half of the town population was Jewish and was known for its multiple synagogues and Catholic cathedrals, making it to be also known as the Russian Toledo city. Additionally, Vitebsk was also primarily built of wood houses but unfortunately little of those survived the aftermath of the Second World War.
In the family, Chagall was the eldest. His father worked for a merchant and his mother was a vendor. As his father was a herring worker, it inspired him to use fish motifs in some of his works. It is said that it was his way of paying homage to his father’s hard work through the years. In fact, in one of his entries, he observed that his father would get up at six in the morning to practice praying rituals at a synagogue. His father would then go back to their house to eat breakfast before heading to a whole day of laborious work which he described as the job of a “galley-slave”.
During the early 20th century in Russia, Jewish children were prohibited from receiving education at any Russian school. Jewish people were not given as much freedom as the non-Jews at the time, so the young Chagall would have to attend a local Jewish school for his primary education. There he took up Hebrew lessons and learned how to read the Bible. At 13, he was enrolled in a Russian school but his mother had to pay the professor under the table worth 50 roubles.
At the school, he saw one of his classmates drawing and that was his first time seeing art of that kind. He became curious and asked the student how did he learn such thing and to which question the student replied with the suggestion of going to the library and find an art book. The innocent Chagall then started copying images he liked from the book and the rest was history.
After learning how to draw, he confessed to his mother that he wanted to be a painter. His mother though found the interest of her son as impractical, but she allowed him to pursue his passion anyway. In 1906, he was sent to the studio of Yehuda Pen to study painting. He believed that after completing Pen’s courses he would become a real artist. However, the master’s academic portrait painting curriculum did not interest him long-term so he left the drawing school after a few months.
Chagall went to St. Petersburg to enter the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. There he was taken under the wings of Leon Bakst, who was a famous Russian set designer and painter. Bakst was a major figure in Chagall’s early artistic influence as it was him who encouraged him to specialize in painting Jewish imagery and other representations. Although the subject was very unpopular at the time, for him, it meant “self-assertion and an expression of principle.”
In 1910 upon his return to Vitebsk, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld, who would become his model for Bella with White Collar (1917). The first meeting experience was extraordinary for the painter, it seemed that the lady “can see right through me.”
From 1910 to 1914, Chagall stayed in Paris to seek new inspirations and artistic styles. At the time Cubism was the primary artistic movement compared to the sentimental and metaphysical art form of the country he came from. Thus, there was a clash in Russian and French art forms which alienated both parties from it, as a result, Chagall’s art was first recognized by poets and literary scholars like Guillaume Apollinaire, with whom he developed friendship.
During his first few weeks in Paris was full of difficulties because he felt home sick plus he did not know how to speak French. But despite this, he still enrolled at Academie de la Palette where he met avant-garde artists Henri Le Fauconnier and Jet Metzinger. He also visited several salons and museums in the city and got to see the masterpieces of Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Manet, Delacroix, Renoir, Gauguin, and Pissarro.
French art taught him a lot of things, including somewhat whimsical motifs. He painted ghostly apparitions hovering around the sky, a large fiddle player dancing on much smaller houses, wombs, among many others. Art experts believe that these images were representative of Chagall’s yearnings and solitariness. It is worth mentioning that the figures were distorted because he tried to make a hybrid of humans and animals as well as phantoms. This is one of the characteristics attributed to Surrealism years later. With these kinds of figurative works, poetry made a successful return to the modern visual art.
In 1914, Chagall accepted an art dealer’s invitation to join an exhibition in Berlin. He thought he could find his way to Belarus and meet up with Bella, and then invite her to come with him to Paris and get married. The artist submitted 160 gouches and some drawings to the exhibition that was held at Sturm Gallery and it ended successfully.
Not long after his first major exhibition in Berlin he traveled to Vitebsk. The couple was reunited but Chagall would only get the chance to marry Bella after the WWI. His works during the early days of his marriage were lighthearted and euphoric. He enjoyed his fame and commercial success from then on. Around October 1917 he became a commissar of the arts for his home city, which eventually resulted to the establishment of Vitebsk Arts College.
For the said art school, he employed Kazimir Malevich and Lissitzky, both were reputable artists in their own right. During his term his advocacy was to unify all art teachers despite their own painting styles. He encouraged diversity in the institution per se but some of the faculty members wouldn’t agree to it because they prefer the so-called Suprematist art over the commissar’s “bourgeois individualism”. So Chagall felt obliged to resign and found himself working in Moscow.
Marc Chagall worked as a set designer for the State Jewish Chamber Theater, which made a debut in 1921. He produced mural paintings for the theater which featured images of dancers, musicians, and animals in their liveliest form. Chagall stayed in Moscow until 1922 and returned to Paris because he found the city of lights’ artistic atmosphere more inviting and inspirational at the time.
As soon as the Nazis took over Germany, France wasn’t spared from their aggressive territorial expansion and attempt in extinguishing the Jews. The French army had collapsed despite having Britain’s military support. Several other artists have already fled the city to the US, but Chagall remained for quite a little longer in France. It was only when their daughter, Ida, convinced them to move out fast did they do so. With the help of SS Navemar, the Chagall’s family, including his paintings, embarked on a journey to the United States.
The Second World War soon followed the Holocaust, which required Chagall to stay in the US until 1948. In the said country he was recognized by the Carnegie and awarded him the prize of 1939. This recognition made him realize his internationally-known reputation, a celebrity status as how his critics claimed it.
Chagall settled in New York together with a large group of European artists. There he visited various museums and had the chance to know Andre Breton and Piet Mondrian. In 1942 he worked with Leonid Massine, a New York Ballet choreographer. He focused on set and stage design but it was his first time designing for a ballet company. The commission would require him to visit Mexico, which he’d be happy about, because he was interested in the folk culture of Mexicans.
September of that year, the ballet made a show and it was a success. Mexican painters Jose Orozco and Diego Rivera even made time to see Chagall’s murals and theatrical designs. The ballet became the talk of the town particularly because of the designer’s lively and breath taking works.
Four years before Chagall returned to France, Bella died of an infection on September 1944. He was devastated by it that he stopped painting for several months, and until he picked up his brush he only painted Bella in his attempt to preserve his memories with her. Some years later, he began a romantic relationship with Virginia Haggard, which lasted for seven years. In June 1946, David McNeil was born but this did not stop the impending separation of the two in 1952.
By the time that Chagall separated from his wife, his daughter Ida introduced him to yet another woman named Valentina Brodsky. She worked for him as a secretary and developed a long-term partnership with him after entering marriage in 1952.
The 1950’s had been spent on designing sets for theater companies in and out of Paris. In 1963, he painted murals for the Paris Opera and completed it despite his old age. One of his last major works was a tapestry for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. However, it was left unfinished because he died on March 28, 1985 at the age of 97.