A Guide to Marc Chagall

“In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.” – Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall was born as he put it “born dead” in 1887 in Vitebsk, Belarus – then part of Russia. He was the eldest of nine siblings who grew up in a Jewish community, that would influence his art for the rest of his life. His father was a hard working herring-merchant and his mother sold vegetables from their home. As a child he developed a habit, and then love, of copying images from books. This soon became a full-blown passion for art. He would go on to experiment with every style available in his work: from cubism to expressionism, to symbolism, to fauvism – but rejecting them all for his own unique style, that of colours and dreams.

Though he has been quoted as the “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” he himself thought his work “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”. By 1919 Chagall was already a renowned as an avant-garde artist, by his death in 1985 he had painted the ceiling of the Paris opera house, created the stained glass for 15 cathedrals, synagogues, churches and museums. He was one of the few artists who exhibited at the Louvre in his lifetime, he had been friends with Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and André Breton, he had illustrated the Old Testament (published in 1956 – 25 years in the making), and become revered unanimously as one of the greatest and most influential artists of our time.

His Style

Chagall was influenced by what was going on around him, this included artistic movements that were occurring at the time. He would use these various movements as vehicles with which to express similar themes and poetic narratives from different perspectives. We see him channeling cubism, hailing his arrival in Paris, in one of his early and most famous works depicting his hometown, I and The Village (1911) and Temptation (Adam and Eve); with works such as The Praying Jew (1923) and The White Crucifixion (1938) we see a more surreal style emerging, that blossoms into his fully fledged, symbol-ridden works of The Juggler (1943) and the surreal dreaminess of Chagall’s now infamous floating figures in Les Amants au ciel rouge (1950). He worked with many other movements, expressing Suprematist, Expressionist and Fauvist influences as well; but the one constant throughout his stylistic fluctuations was that of his expressive and free use of colour. Picasso once famously said “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color is… His canvases are really painted, not just tossed together. Some of the last things he’s done in Vence convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.” Chagall’s use and understanding of colour made for happy transference to his works on different mediums, from stained glass in numerous synagogues, churches and the UN Peace Window (1964) to sculptures, wall tiles, vases, tapestries; and he even took up lithography at the age of 63 with works full of familiar dreaminess such as Springtime on the Meadow (1961).

He Created A World First

Chagall, in his seemingly unconditional love for his wife Bella created a first in art history. His Double Portrait With Wine Glass – depicts Chagall on the shoulders of his wife Bella, which, was the first time ever, that an artist had decided to portray the groom on the shoulders of the bride.

The pose could be referencing the Jewish wedding ritual where the couple is carried and carried by their guests, but was still quite a revolutionary sentiment.

Chagall And The Theatre

Chagall had had an early interest in experimental theatre and would continue to be fascinated by both the theatre and the circus throughout his life. In 1914 he created the work Acrobat, showing the beginnings of his love for circus scenes. In the early 1920’s he designed costumes, sets and murals for Moscow’s Jewish Chamber Theater. In subsequent decades he returned repeatedly to the theme of the circus for inspiration, which would go on to become the theme of one of his most expensive paintings, The Big Circus (1956), that would sell for $13.7 million in 2007. In 1963 Chagall would paint the ceiling for Paris Opera House. The epic task of applying 440 pounds of paint to 2,400 square feet of canvas, he completed in a year.

His love of Symbolism

Looking at a Chagall painting is like trying to decipher the symbols of a dream. They’re all there, you just have to know the code, and unfortunately to know the code, you need to be Marc Chagall. As Jean-Michel Foray, director of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum in Nice says: “Some art historians have sought to decrypt his symbols, but there’s no consensus on what they mean. We cannot interpret them because they are simply part of his world, like figures from a dream.” Though we can find recurrent themes such as his influences from his childhood: farmyard animals and Jewish culture and folklore, as well as symbols and geomteric patterns woven into clothes, and his angel-like figures suspended in mid-air; much of his ever-present figurative surrealism is open to interpretation – much like the archetypal symbols in dreams.

His Most Expensive Paintings 

Chagall’s works are frequently sold in to the millions, his most expensive painting ever sold at auction was L’Anniversaire (1923) which sold for $14.85 million on the 17 May 1990. After that the most expensive is The Big Circus (1956) which went for $13.7 million, and Russian Village Under the Moon (1911) which went for $8.25 million in 1999.

Most of Chagall’s famous works are either in owned by museums (such as the Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice), in the hands of some very lucky private collectors, or they’re attached to a cathedral. However, in his lifetime Chagall created 10,000 works, so there’s always a chance we might be able to find, and afford one.

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