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An important early-Modernist artist, Marc Chagall worked across multiple mediums, including painting, illustration and costume design. He is associated with several major artistic styles, as his works contain elements of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, but never adhere to just one style.


Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Belorussia, in 1887, to a large Hassidic family that was neither wealthy nor poor. The influence of his childhood, and the atmosphere of the place where he grew up, is visible in works throughout his career. Chagall enjoyed drawing as a child and went on to study painting in the studio of realist portrait painter Jehuda Pen. In 1907, he moved to St Petersburg to study at the Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts for three years, before studying with Léon Bakst at the Svanseva School.

First Works

During Chagall’s time at the Svanseva School, the motif of the roof violinist began to emerge in his works, particularly in The Dead Man (1908). In My Fiancée With Black Gloves (1909), Chagall began a series of works inspired by his wife-to-be, Bella Rosenfeld, in his signature unrealistic, yet translatable, style. In 1911, Chagall produced the best-known example of his work inspired by Vitebsk, which features as the atmospheric backdrop of I And The Village (1911).

Chagall’s twelve-year stay in Paris, beginning in 1910, established what would remain the painting style of the rest of his career, with dreamlike scenes, up-turned figures, seemingly random composition, and thinly-spread colours. The paintings’ subjects focus on Jewish folklore and Russian fairytales, often with Chagall himself as the central character. These pieces are recognised as some of Chagall’s greatest works, including Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers (1912), Hommage À Apollinaire (1912), and Paris Through The Window (1913). 


Chagall’s first solo exhibition was at the Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin in 1914; but, his work had previously been exhibited at the annual Paris Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne in the twelve months before. His work struck a chord with the German Expressionist crowd at the time, which sent Chagall on his way to success.

Chagall’s critical acclaim and popularity only increased as his career progressed. In the decades that followed, as he navigated the religious and military conflict in Germany and traversed from paintings to theatre set design, engraving, and stained-glass, he continued to be celebrated by galleries across the world. 1973 saw the opening of the Museum of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message in Nice, and, four years later, in 1977, a retrospective was held at the Louvre. In the same year, Chagall was awarded the Grand Medal of the Legion of Honour in France.

Most Famous Works

The saturation of recurring motifs and honest emotion in Chagall’s works often dictate their popularity. His flying lovers, for example, feature in works such as Birthday (1915-1923), and Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine (1917), painted at the beginning of his marriage to Bella Rosenfeld.

When Chagall returned to Vitebsk at the beginning of World War I, his style changed again, and he returned to realistic local scenes. Famous works such as The Praying Jew (1914), Jew in Green (1914), Wounded Soldier (1914), and Marching (1914) reflect the conflict of the time.

Some of Chagall’s most famous works are not paintings, however, but engravings, coloured lithographs, and monotypes. He produced a series of 107 etchings for Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls (1842), after meeting art dealer Ambroise Vollard in Paris. This work, and his etchings for Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables (1668), were picked up by E. Tériade after Vollard’s death. This meeting led to the creation of some of Chagall’s best-loved and best-known works: his 1939 etchings to accompany the Old Testament.


When Chagall moved to Paris in 1910, he found his way into La Ruche, a studio for Bohemian artists, where he met the likes of Chaim Soutine, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, among others. The painterly styles of this group spanned from Expressionism to Cubism, each encouraging a brave use of colour, shape, and interpretation in the others. Chagall used this time to practice the illogical depictions that are now synonymous with his style. Immersed in the vibrancy of art in Paris, Chagall visited museums and galleries that exhibited Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Fauvist paintings, which prompted his experimentation with brighter, bolder colours.

Style & Technique

Flying lovers, fantasy animals, biblical prophets, fiddlers on the roof, and clowns, were all recurring motifs in Chagall’s work. His confident use of fantastical elements made him one of the most significant artistic innovators of his time. As a result, his style cannot be compared directly to any of the artistic movements that he dabbled with; instead, hints of influence rather than conformity appear in his paintings. His work, though divisive in the critical world of the time, is an example of artistic metaphor that is unparalleled in the works of his contemporaries.

Chagall composed his pieces based on his personal emotional connections, including everything from his romantic loves to the horrors of war, rather than standard pictorial logic, even when it came to illustrating the written works of others. His work exists before the Surrealist movement, so it can be seen as the first great example of psychic expression in modern art.

Life & Times

Chagall’s early career saw him flit between Vitebsk, Berlin, and Paris, in line with the rising conflicts in Germany. Though Chagall avoided military service, he was enthusiastically invested in the Russian Revolution of 1917. He was installed as Commissar of Fine Arts in Vitebsk, giving him a platform to launch projects for the local art academy and museum.

As part of the Nazi regime, Chagall’s work was removed from all German museums. Paintings were either burned or exhibited in a show of ‘degenerate art’ in Munich in 1937, and most of his work from the Der Sturm exhibition was quickly lost. Chagall fled to the Loire Valley, and then to Marseilles, before he sought refuge in New York after his name was added to the Museum of Modern Art’s list of artists deemed most at risk.

Chagall’s romantic and familial life was turbulent and, at times, full of sorrow. His first wife, and mother to daughter Ida, Bella Rosenfeld, died in 1944 after a marriage of 29 years. During his time in New York, he met and fathered his son, David, with English artist, Virginia McNeil, in 1946. But, in 1952, he married Valentina Brodsky, who became a strict and motivating artistic manager.

He died in France in 1985 as one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and innovative artists.

Last Works

Chagall’s later work saw him focus on set design, a skill he had nurtured during a brief spell in Moscow. He produced the backdrops and costumes for ballets such as Aleko (1942), Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1945), and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

In 1948, Chagall moved back to France. The work he produced in Paris saw his subjects change from war-stricken scenes to affectionate images of the French capital and portraits of his new love, Valentina. He also produced several projects for the Paris Opéra.

In the late 1950s, Chagall began working with stained glass. Some of his most prestigious works include windows for the Saint-Etienne Cathedral of Metz (1958), the United Nations Building in New York (1961), and the ceiling of the Paris Opéra (1964). Strong artistic works in their own right, these windows still feature all the colours and magical imagery of his earlier works.

On the Market

Chagall continues to be one of the 20th century’s most celebrated Western artists. While many of his most famous works are installed windows or illustrations for written works, his paintings still reach impressive figures at auction. In November 2017, his masterpiece Les Amoureux (1923-1928), depicting Bella Rosenfeld in France, sold at Sotheby’s New York for over $28,000,000 USD. This broke the record for a Chagall piece sold at auction. Limited edition prints of Chagall’s work are almost as rare as originals when it comes to auction sales; and, as a result, sell for upwards of $15,000 USD.