Marc Chagall was a modernist artist who worked with unique success in a range of mediums, including painting, ceramics, etching, drawing, theatre and costume design, and stained glass. He is associated with several major artistic styles, creating paintings that contain elements of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, but never adhere to just one style.
Born in Vitebsk, Belorussia, in 1887, to a large Hassidic family that was neither wealthy nor poor, the influence of his childhood is visible in works throughout Chagall’s career. The best-known, I and the Village (1911), has Vitebsk as its atmospheric backdrop. 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, and then studied with Léon Bakst at the Svanseva School. At this time we see the emergence of Chagall’s roof violinist motif in The Dead Man (1908). In My Fiancée with Black Gloves (1909), Chagall depicts his wife-to-be, Bella Rosenfeld, in his signature unrealistic, yet translatable, style.
In 1910, Chagall moved to Paris. 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. As he visited Paris museums and galleries, in which Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Fauvist paintings were popular, Chagall experimented with brighter, bolder colours.
Chagall’s stay in Paris during this time yielded what are widely recognised to be his ‘best’ works; including Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912), I and the Village (1911), Hommage à Apollinaire (1912), and Paris Through the Window (1913). In this time, he 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 fairy tales, with Chagall himself as the central character.
Chagall’s work was exhibited at the annual Paris Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, but his first solo show was at the Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin, 1914, where his work appealed to the German Expressionist crowd.
DREAMS AND METAPHOR
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; 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, 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.
It is easy to see how the emotional intensity of certain stages of Chagall’s life influenced his work. His paintings from the time of his marriage to Bella Rosenfeld in 1915 have a flighty, airy, free-spirited feel, featuring his well-known flying lovers: Birthday (1915-1923) and Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine (1917). Upon Rosenfeld’s death in 1944, she featured in his work as a weeping wife or ghostly bride: Around Her (1945), and The Wedding Candles (1945).
At the beginning of World War I, Chagall found himself stranded back in Vitebsk. His sudden change in style, returning to realistic, local scenes, reflects the conflict of his surroundings. The most famous pieces from this time include The Praying Jew (1914), and Jew in Green (1914). Works such as Wounded Soldier (1914) and Marching (1914) directly reference the war that was building.
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. After less than three years, Chagall moved to Moscow after a political disagreement with his peers, the bitterness of which can be seen in his works of the time. In Moscow, Chagall began creating theatre sets and costumes for Sholem Aleichem, a skill that came into play later in life.
He returned to Berlin in 1922 to discover that many of the paintings from his Der Sturm exhibition had gone missing. He turned his hand to engraving, before moving to Paris in 1923 with Rosenfeld and their daughter, Ida.
Here, he produced a series of engraving, coloured lithographs, and monotypes, before meeting Ambroise Vollard through his friend Blaise Cendrars. Vollard was an art dealer and publisher, who commissioned a series of 107 etchings to illustrate Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls (1842). These etchings, along with his subsequent illustrations for Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables (1668), would not get published until after Vollard’s death and World War II, when they were taken up by E. Tériade.
E. Tériade was also responsible for publishing the famous etchings that accompanied the Old Testament, completed in 1939, now some of Chagall’s best-loved and best-known works. Chagall produced fewer large canvases during this time, as his work took a more commercial turn, instead publishing his autobiography, My Life (1931). In 1933, the Kunsthalle in Basel hosted a retrospective on Chagall’s work.
With Hitler’s rise to power came a conflict that struck Chagall more personally. In works such as White Crucifixion (1938), Chagall explores this through a mix of Jewish and Christian symbols, and images of German Jews being terrorised by the Nazis. At the centre stands the crucified Christ, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl.
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. Chagall fled to the Loire Valley, and then to Marseilles, as the Nazi threat became more widespread; but, in 1941, his name was added to the Museum of Modern Art’s list of artists deemed most at risk, enabling him to seek refuge in New York. Even in New York, however, the themes of war and religious persecution remained prevalent in his work.
LATER CAREER AND LEGACY
Chagall’s later work saw him focus more exclusively on set design, and eventually stained glass. He produced the backdrops and costumes for ballets such as Aleko (1942), Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1945), and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. He met English artist Virginia McNeil, and in 1946, she gave birth to their son, David. In the same year, retrospectives were held to celebrate Chagall’s work at both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1948, Chagall moved back to France. He married Valentina Brodsky in 1952, who became his strict and ruthless manager and the subject of many of his later portraits. The work he produced in Paris saw his subjects change from war-stricken scenes to affectionate images of the French capital. Returning to the set design work of New York, he produced several projects for the Paris Opéra.
He did not begin working in stained glass until the late 1950s. Some of his most prestigious work includes 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). Still featuring all of the colours and magical imagery of his earlier works, these later works are considered to be some of his strongest.
Chagall’s critical acclaim and popularity only increased as his career progressed. In the decades that followed, he continued to be celebrated by galleries across the world. In 1973, the Museum of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message was opened 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.
He died in France in 1985, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and innovative artists.