Kathryn Kaiser of Verity Blue Studio
Marc Chagall – The Bible, Love & Mozart (1887-1985)

The last surviving modernist, Marc Chagall was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium over his productive and long life. He was a painter, but also produced etchings, printmaking and illustration. He designed and created stained glass, stage sets, costumes, ceramics and mosaics, tapestries and fabric prints. Chagall’s work was imbued with spiritual symbolism, rich visual imagery and colour. He perceived his vision “not as the dream of one people, but of all humanity.”

Marc Chagall c.1920 (by Pierre Choumoff)
Marc Chagall c.1920 (by Pierre Choumoff)

Marc Zakharovich Chagall was born Moishe Zhakharovich Shagal into a large Hasidic Jewish family in Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk, Belorussia, in the Russian Empire (now Belarus) in 1887. His father worked in a herring warehouse, and his mother sold fish, flour, sugar, and spices out of her home. His childhood years, his family and community, music and his native village would become the main themes of his art.

Chagall would later include fish motifs in his work out of respect for his father. “Day after day, winter and summer, at six o’clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father’s lot.”

In Russia at that time, Jewish children were not allowed to attend Russian schools or universities. Their movement within the city was also restricted. Chagall therefore received his primary education at the local Jewish religious school, where he only excelled at geometry. When he was thirteen, his mother tried to enrol him in Russian high school, but as they did not accept Jews, she was forced to bribe the headmaster to allow her son in.” Chagall wrote as a boy; “I felt at every step that I was a Jew – people made me feel it”. 

A profound turning point in his life came when he first noticed a fellow student drawing. When Chagall asked his classmate how he learned to draw, his friend replied, “Go and find a book in the library, choose any picture you like, and just copy it.” Chagall would later say that there was no art of any kind in his family’s home and the concept was totally alien to him.

One day he took his mother’s elbow and implored, “Mama, I want to be a painter.” She would have been happier to see him become a clerk. “Still, it’s somewhere within her that my talent lay hidden.” She conceded.

1906 he began his artistic instruction at the small art studio of realist portrait painter Yehuda (Yuri) Pen in Vitebsk. Chagall’s father agreed to give him “the five rubles the lessons cost for a month, but he sent them spinning across the yard so that I had to chase after them.” Chagall has said, ” Though my art played no part in my parent’s lives, their lives certainly influenced my art.”

“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.” Marc Chagall

Russia (1907–1910)

In 1907 Chagall moved to Saint Petersburg, which was then the capital of Russia and the centre of the country’s artistic life. Since Jews were not permitted into the city without an internal passport, he managed to secure a temporary (illegal) passport, enrol in a prestigious art school and study there for two years. He began painting naturalistic self-portraits and landscapes at this time, and was an active member of the irregular freemason lodge, the Grand Orient of Russia’s Peoples, and of the “Vitebsk” lodge.

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Portrait de_ a Soeur de l’Artiste
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Self Portrait (1914)
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Naissance (Birth) 1912

Between 1908 and 1910, Chagall was a student of Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting (or the Imperial Society for the Protection of the Arts). These were difficult years financially for Chagall. He became a sign painter and a servant to survive, as he was unable to support himself with his art.

While in Saint Petersburg, he discovered experimental theatre and the work of such artists as Paul Gauguin and Léon Bakst. Bakst was a designer of decorative art and famous as a draftsman designer of stage sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. Art historian Raymond Cogniat wrote that after living and studying art on his own for four years, “Chagall entered into the mainstream of contemporary art. His apprenticeship over, Russia played a memorable initial role in his life.”

Russian-Wedding-1909-Chagall
Russian Wedding (1909)

Music was at the heart of Chagall’s art from the very beginning. In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in Russia, when everyone knew the songs of Tchaikovsky and Glinka, this was the most common means of making music at home. The instrument perhaps most closely associated with Chagall is the violin, which becomes an important symbol in the cultural and religious setting of his childhood.  It is reminiscent of the importance of song in the synagogue and to his family members, several of whom were musicians. The violin is the instrument of the exodus, carried by the Jewish people as they fled.

Chagall paints Bella with Ida looking on
Chagall paints Bella with Ida looking on – Photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Marc Chagall stayed in Saint Petersburg until 1910, often visiting Vitebsk, where he met talented writer Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of wealthy Vitebsk jewelry merchants, Shmuel Noah and Alta Rosenfeld. Bella and Marc had fallen for each other when they met in 1909. Soon after meeting, they were engaged. Although both were from Vitebsk, their social worlds were far apart and the Rosenfelds were unhappy with the engagement.

Bella was Chagall’s muse, and forever the great love of his life. In his autobiography My Life, Chagall described first meeting her: “Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me.”

She, like Chagall, was raised in a traditional Hasidic Jewish community setting. Bella’s parents, however, sought out secular education and opportunities for their children. She was educated in Russian language schools and became a student in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Moscow in her teens. Bella was keenly interested in theatre and art. As a university student, she contributed articles to a Moscow newspaper.

Bella’s description of their first encounter is sensitive and poetic: “When you did catch a glimpse of his eyes, they were as blue as if they’d fallen straight out of the sky. They were strange eyes … long, almond-shaped … and each seemed to sail along by itself, like a little boat.”

France (1910-1914)

“Colour is all. When colour is right, form is right. Colour is everything, colour is vibration like music; everything is vibration.” ~ Marc Chagall

In 1910, with an allowance provided by a St. Petersburg patron, Chagall relocated to Paris to develop his artistic style. In 1912 he rented a studio in La Ruche (“The Beehive” – the now celebrated rotunda building that housed 140 artists’ studios) where he encountered the art of Léger and Picasso, and the Orphist, Impressionist, Post-impressionist, Fauvist and Futurist movements.  He made friends with the avant-garde poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and Blaise Cendrars, as well as a number of young painters who would later rise to fame: the Expressionist Chaim Soutine, the abstract colourist Robert Delaunay, and the Cubists Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Fernand Léger and André Lhote.

Butcher Grandfather 1910 - Chagall
Butcher (Grandfather) 1910
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Fiddler 1912 (Inspiration for the title of Fiddler on the Roof)

Chagall held Picasso in high esteem throughout his early career. When Chagall arrived in Paris, he wished to meet Picasso and asked the poet Apollinaire to introduce them. Apollinaire refused, with the reply: “Picasso? Are you feeling suicidal?” A meeting never occurred at this time, as Picasso was in the midst of creating cubism with Georges Braque. The rejection did not sway Chagall from his admiration of his contemporary, as he completed a drawing Thinking of Picasso in 1914 before returning to Russia.

These influences “fostered a new way of constructing pictorial space”, but Chagall also sought his own form of modernism. Like other contemporary Jewish artists, he drew from his roots find his own style based on the symbolism of his childhood and his people; “My family belonged to the Hasidic community. Music and religion played a major part in the world of my childhood and left a deep impression on my work, as did everything that belonged to that world.”

I_and_the_Village_ 1911-Chagall
I and the Village 1911

Let them eat their fill of their square pears on their triangular tables! ~ Marc Chagall

Art historian and curator James Sweeney wrote that when Chagall first arrived in Paris, Cubism was the dominant art form and French art was still dominated by the “materialistic outlook of the 19th century. But Chagall arrived from Russia with a ripe color gift, a fresh, unashamed response to sentiment, a feeling for simple poetry and a sense of humor.” These notions were alien to Paris at that time, and as a result, his first recognition came not from other painters but from poets Cendrars and Apollinaire. Art historian Jean Leymarie observes that Chagall began thinking of art as “emerging from the internal being outward, from the seen object to the psychic outpouring”, which was the reverse of the Cubist way of creating.

Homage to Apollinaire (1912)
Homage to Apollinaire (1912)

In Paris he attended Académie de La Palette, the avant-garde school of art where painters Jean Metzinger, André Dunoyer de Segonzac and Henri Le Fauconnier taught. He came to admire Rembrandt, the Le Nain brothers, Chardin, van Gogh, Renoir, Pissarro, Matisse, Gauguin, Courbet, Millet, Manet, Monet, Delacroix and others. It was in Paris that he discovered gouache, which he used to paint the Belarusian scenes. It was also in Paris that he gained a deeper understanding of colour. The “musicality of colour”, through compositions of coloured scales and scores, is present throughout Chagall’s work, and became fully developed during this period in Paris.

“By the early 1920s, the theories of Arnold Schoenberg and the twelve-tone movement were developing the notion of the Klangfarbenmelodie (melody of tone colours), which explores “timbre based on the paradigm of tone colour”. While Alexander Scriabin and later Olivier Messiaen experimented by associating colours with specific notes, Chagall’s chromatic and plastic investigations grew more from his interest in composing his own personal world of sound. “As both a symbolic and compositional element, colour contained and transmitted the essence of the universal and humanist message he wished to convey through its visual, emotional and metaphysical power.” – Art History News.

Chagall - Self Portrait With Seven Fingers
Self Portrait With Seven Fingers 1912
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Paris Through the Window 1913

These four years in Paris are often considered Chagall’s finest; his breakthrough years. Works representing this time period are: Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, I and the Village, Hommage à Apollinaire, Calvary, The Fiddler, and Paris Through the Window. Many of these whimsical, dreamlike images feature himself as the principal subject, and take their sources from his childhood and his home. “My homeland exists only in my soul”, Chagall once said. He continued painting Jewish motifs and subjects from his memories of Vitebsk, although he included Parisian scenes (the Eiffel Tower in particular) along with portraits. Many of his works were updated versions of paintings he had made in Russia, transposed into Fauvist or Cubist style.

In fact the majority of his scenes of life in Vitebsk were painted while living in Paris. “In a sense they were dreams”, notes Michael J. Lewis.  His “animal-human hybrids and airborne phantoms” would later have a formative influence on Surrealism. Chagall, however, did not want his work to be associated with any school or movement and considered his own personal language of symbols to be meaningful to himself. Biographer James Johnson Sweeney notes that “This is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other”. André Breton said that “with him alone, the metaphor made its triumphant return to modern painting”.

Russia and Soviet Belarus (1914–1922)

Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower - Marc Chagall
Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower
Jew in Bright Red (1915) Chagall-The State Russian Museum
Jew in Bright Red 1915
Marc Chagall - Over Vitebsk 1914
Marc Chagall – Over Vitebsk (1914)

After exhibiting in the annual Paris Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne, Chagall was invited to do his first solo show in Berlin, Germany in 1914. His intention was to do the show in Berlin and continue on to Belarus, marry Bella Rosenfeld, and then return with her to Paris. Chagall took 40 canvases and 160 gouaches, watercolors and drawings. The exhibit, held at Herwarth Walden’s De Sturm Gallery, Berlin was a huge success, and firmly established him as a leading international artist. He went on to Vitebsk, but became stranded by the outbreak of World War I.  Chagall painted local scenes and a series of studies of old men. Examples of this series are The Praying Jew (or The Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914) and Jew in Green (1914).

The Praying Jew 1914
The Praying Jew 1914

In 1915 Chagall began exhibiting his work in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. This exposure brought recognition, and a number of wealthy collectors began buying his art. He also began illustrating a number of Yiddish books with ink drawings. He illustrated I. L. Peretz’s The Magician in 1917. At just 30 years old Chagall was gaining a following.

Bella With White Collar - Chagall
Bella With White Collar 1917
l’Anniversaire-1915-Marc Chagall
l’Anniversaire-1915

Chagall and Bella were married in 1915. Bella was the subject of much of his work at this time. Among the many paintings in which she appears are the depiction of flying lovers entitled Birthday (l’Anniversaire) and the high-spirited, acrobatic Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine (1917). According to Lewis, “the euphoric paintings of this time, which show the young couple floating balloon-like over Vitebsk—its wooden buildings faceted in the Delaunay manner—are the most lighthearted of his career”. This is a  subject he would return to many times in later years.

The following are lesser reproduced paintings that reflect Chagall’s life with his new family and young daughter. During this time, most of his work was painted on paper and/or cardboard as canvas was unavailable. He struggled with fatherhood during Ida’s early months, and many of these portrayals of her are vague and disconnected. The baby cried incessantly, and Chagall had no patience for it. Ida was constantly hungry and underfed, as they all were. She was born in 1916, when the food situation in Petrograd was becoming grimmer by the day. Marc Chagall and Ida were eventually able to repair their relationship as she grew older, but these early years were difficult for him.

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Bella & Ida By the Window 1916
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Strawberries, Bella & Ida 1916
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Window Over a Garden 1917

Chagall was initially embraced the Russian Revolution of October 1917. He became one of Russia’s most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, whom enjoyed special privileges as the “aesthetic arm of the revolution”. He was offered a notable position as a commissar of visual arts for the country, but wanting something less political he instead accepted a job as Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk region and launched into ambitious projects for a local art academy and museum. This resulted in Chagall founding the Vitebsk Arts College, which  became the one of the most distinguished schools of art in the Soviet Union. He obtained some of the most important artists in the country, such as El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich and his old teacher, Yehuda Pen to teach here. Chagall also nurtured a lifelong interest in the theatre, which was given its first full expression as part of his duties as Arts Commissar in Vitebsk.

Peretz's The Magician
Peretz’s The Magician Illustrated by Marc Chagall

Interesting to note, that the following four paintings were created within a one year period. In the summer of 1917 Chagall travelled to his home of Vitebsk for a two-month holiday. During this time he painted a series of significant landscapes, including The Gates of the Cemetery and The Blue House. He often worked from nature and the pictures were completed in the studio. This was a highly unusual practice in the area at the time. These paintings are highly accomplished, and artistically superior to the earlier sketches documenting his impressions of Vitebsk.

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The Gates of the Cemetary (1917)
House at Vitebsk (1917)
House at Vitebsk (1917)
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The Blue House (1917)
Marc Chagall - Over the Village Center, 1918
Over the Village Center (1918)

Theatre was political in these times of revolution and the theatre companies themselves were often products of political manoeuvring. Vitebsk’s post-Revolution theatre scene was strengthened by new regime-supported enterprises such as the Vitebsk Theatre of Revolutionary Satire (TEREVSAT) which became synonymous with agitprop (agitation propaganda) plays. TEREVSAT was the first theatre for which Chagall designed both costumes and sets on a regular basis. The artist also undertook many theatre design commissions in Moscow and Petrograd while still working at the art college in Vitebsk, travelling back and forth between the cities. He attempted to create an atmosphere of a collective of independently minded artists at the Vitebsk Arts College, each with their own unique style. However, there was dissension among the staff and they disapproved of Chagall’s attempt at creating “bourgeois individualism”. Chagall resigned as commissar and moved to Moscow.

In Moscow Chagall’s focus was on the theatre.  He produced the sets and costumes for plays by the Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem and murals for the Kamerny Theatre. The art critic Abram Efros, who had recently become the artistic director of the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, recruited the artist in November 1920 as a designer. For the first season’s opening night, Chagall was asked to design the sets and costumes for three one-act plays by Aleichem. In addition, he decorated the entire room of the tiny theatre by painting wall and ceiling murals on canvas, as well as a stage curtain. The wall panels Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, Music, Dance, Drama, Literature, Love on the Stage and The Wedding Feast frieze survive to this day. Chagall’s month long endeavour transformed the space into an immersive symbolic environment that was affectionately named ‘Chagall’s Box’.

Introduction to the Jewish Theatre - Chagall's Box
Four Images of the Arts: Music, Dance, Drama, and Literature. This space would come to be known as “Chagall’s Box”

“With their dreamy, pale colours and detailed compositions these works act as a manifesto for Chagall’s deliberately hybrid aesthetic, in which broad bands of colour plainly derived from suprematism are the backdrop – but only the backdrop – for resolutely non-abstract portraits of performers, artists and livestock. These monumental paintings packed with activity present Chagall’s panoramic vision of the Jewish theatre as the theatre of life. The murals ‘constituted a landmark’ in the history of the theatre, and were forerunners of his later large-scale works, including murals for the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera.” – Tate Museum

Famine spread after the war ended. Chagall found it necessary to move to a smaller town near Moscow and commuted to Moscow daily. In 1921, he worked as an art teacher in a Jewish boys’ shelter in suburban Malakhovka, which housed orphaned refugees. While there he created a series of illustrations for the Yiddish poetry cycle Grief written by Dovid Hofstein, another teacher at the Malakhovka shelter. Hofstein was a poet and activist who was arrested with other members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and executed on the Night of the Murdered Poets (August 1952).

Illustration for Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922)
Illustration for Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922)
Illustration for Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922)
Illustration for Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922)
Illustration for Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922)
Illustration for Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922)

He later recalled “watching a bride, the beggars and the poor wretches weighted down with bundles”, leading him to conclude that the new regime had turned Russia “upside down the way I turn my pictures … The factories were stopping. The horizons opened. Space and emptiness. No more bread. The black lettering on the morning posters made me feel sick at heart”. After living in poverty and becoming increasingly disillusioned by Soviet rule, Chagall made plans move back to France. He applied for an exit visa and while waiting for its uncertain approval Chagall began writing his autobiography, My Life. 

La Revolution - Chagall
La Revolution – 1937

France (1923–1941)

La-fenêtre-ouverte-ou-Vue-de-la-fenêtre-circa-1927
Marc Chagall – La Fenêtre Ouverte ou Vue de la fenêtre 1927

In 1922 Chagall left Russia, going first to Berlin to retrieve his work and discovering that the pieces he had left behind in 1914 had disappeared. In 1923, with his wife and daughter, he settled once again in Paris. With his early works now lost, he began trying to sketch and paint from memories of his earliest years in Vitebsk.

Chagall had learned the techniques of engraving while in Berlin. In the 1920s he produced a number of small collections of engravings, many single plates, and an impressive quantity of coloured lithographs and monotypes. He formed a business relationship with French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who in 1923 commissioned him to create a series of etchings to illustrate a special edition of Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. This project launched Chagall on a long career as a printmaker.

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Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls Etchings 1923
Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls Etchings 1923
Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls Etchings 1923
Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls Etchings 1923
Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls Etchings 1923

Over the next three years, Chagall executed 107 full-page plates for the Gogol book. Vollard then commissioned him to do an edition of French poet Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables, with coloured illustrations resembling 18th-century prints. Chagall prepared 100 gouaches for reproduction, but his colours were too complex for the printing process. He revised the drawings to black-and-white etchings, completing the plates in 1931.

The Cat Transformed into a Woman c.1928-31-1947 by Marc Chagall
The Cat Transformed into a Woman 1928-31 (Fables de La Fontaine)
Le lion et le chasseur (Fables de La Fontaine)
Le Lion et le Chasseur 1928-31 (Fables de La Fontaine)

Between the two World Wars, Chagall traveled extensively. In 1924 he travelled to Brittany and painted La fenêtre sur l’Île-de-Bréhat. He was in southern France in 1926, in Palestine and Syria in 1931 (as preparation for the Bible etchings), and between 1932 and 1937 in Holland, Spain, Poland, and Italy. Chagall was widely considered the greatest interpreter of the Bible since Rembrandt. He used biblical themes often in his paintings, graphic works, as his stained glass windows in later years.

“I should like to recall how advantageous my travels outside France have been for me in an artistic sense – in Holland or in Spain, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, or simply in the south of France. There, in the south, for the first time in my life, I saw that rich greenness – the like of which I had never seen in my own country. In Holland I thought I discovered that familiar and throbbing light, like the light between the late afternoon and dusk. In Italy I found that peace of the museums which the sunlight brought to life. In Spain I was happy to find the inspiration of a mystical, if sometimes cruel, past to find the song of its sky and of its people. And in the East I found, unexpectedly, the Bible and a part of my very being.” – Marc Chagall on the countries he visited during this time.

La fenêtre sur l'Île-de-Bréhat.
La fenêtre sur l’Île-de-Bréhat. (1924)

“Changes in societal structure and in art would possess more credibility if they had their origins in the soul and spirit. If people read the words of the prophets with closer attention, they would find the keys to life.” ~ Marc Chagall

Illustrations for the Bible - Chagall
Illustrations for the Bible
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Adam and Eve and the Forbidden Fruit 1960
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Jeremiah 1960
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Abraham and the Three Angles 1960

By 1926 he had his first exhibition in the United States at the Reinhardt gallery of New York which included about 100 works. He did not travel to the opening, but instead stayed behind in France. However, it was not until 1927 that Chagall made his name in the French art world, when art critic and historian Maurice Raynal awarded him a place in his book Modern French Painters.

Raynal however, seemed to be at a loss to accurately describe Chagall to his readers: “Chagall interrogates life in the light of a refined, anxious, childlike sensibility, a slightly romantic temperament … a blend of sadness and gaiety characteristic of a grave view of life. His imagination, his temperament, no doubt forbid a Latin severity of composition.”

Marc Chagall’s reputation as a modern master was confirmed by a large retrospective exhibition in 1933 at the Kunsthalle in Basel, Switzerland.

He was then commissioned by Vollard to do a series of etchings illustrating the Bible. Chagall completed 66 plates by 1939, when World War II and the death of Vollard halted work on the project. When the project was finally renewed in the postwar years, Chagall had completed 105 plates. The Paris publisher E. Tériade issued Dead Souls in 1948, La Fontaine’s Fables in 1952 and the Bible in 1956. These illustrations would eventually come to represent his finest printmaking efforts. 

“Moses and Pharaoh” (1931-39), Marc Chagall
Moses and Pharaoh (1931-39)
Capture of Jeruselum
Capture of Jerusalem (1931-39)
Exodus from Egypt
Exodus from Egypt (1931-39)

“As Chagall constantly repeated, the three most essential elements in life for him were the Bible, love and Mozart. His entire work is imbued with music. I had the great honour of knowing Marc Chagall during the last years of his life, when I realized how deep his knowledge of music was, ranging from klezmer to Stockhausen, and also of his interest in complete art, which is evident in his theatrical and monumental productions.” – Mikhaïl Rudy

White Crucifixion 1938
White Crucifixion 1938

At the same time that Chagall’s popularity was spreading, so was Hitler’s rise to power and the threat of Fascism and Nazism. Because of his Jewish roots, his art was part of the cultural “cleansing” undertaken by the Nazis in Germany and was ordered removed from museums throughout the country. Several pieces were subsequently burned and others were featured in a 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art” held in Munich. Chagall’s angst regarding these troubling events and the persecution of Jews in general can be seen in his painting White Crucifixion (1938). In this painting Jewish and Christian symbols are combined in a depiction of German Jews terrorized by a Nazi mob. At the centre of the composition is the crucified Christ wrapped in a tallith, or a Jewish prayer shawl.

When World War II erupted, Chagall and his family moved to the Loire region before moving farther south to Marseilles following the invasion of France. Fortunately, in 1941, Chagall’s name was added by the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City to a list of artists and intellectuals deemed most at risk from the Nazis’ anti-Jewish campaign. Chagall and his family would be among the more than 2,000 who received visas and escaped. He and his family took refuge in the United States and he spent most of the next few years in and around New York City.

USA

Arriving in New York City in June 1941, Chagall discovered that he was already a well-known artist there and, despite a language barrier, soon became a part of the exiled European artist community. The following year he was commissioned by choreographer Léonide Massine to design sets and costumes for the ballet Aleko, based on Alexander Pushkin’s “The Gypsies” and set to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Even as he settled into the safety of his temporary home, Chagall’s thoughts were often consumed by the fate of the Jews in Europe and the destruction of Russia. His paintings such as The Yellow Crucifixion (1943), The Feathers and the Flowers (1943) and The Juggler (1943) are odes to this time. 

Devastation struck in September 1944, when his beloved Bella died of a viral infection, leaving the artist incapacitated with grief. His sadness at the loss of his wife would haunt Chagall for years to come, and he painted memories of her, often in a Vitebsk setting. She appears as a weeping wife and a phantom bride in Around Her and, again, as the bride in The Wedding Candles and Nocturne (1947). Working through his pain, in 1945 Chagall began the set design and costumes for a production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, which premiered in 1949, ran until 1965 and has been staged numerous times since.

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The Juggler 1943
Around Her - Chagall
Around Her 1945
The Wedding Candles 1945 - Marc Chagall
The Wedding Candles 1945

In 1946 he became involved with a young English artist named Virginia McNeil, and in 1946 she gave birth to their son, David. He was honoured with a large retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946 and at the Art Institute of Chicago a few months later.

When he was fifty seven and still living in the United States Chagall published an open letter entitled, “To My City Vitebsk”: Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? … You thought, the boy seeks something, seeks such a special subtlety, that colour descending like stars from the sky and landing, bright and transparent, like snow on our roofs. Where did he get it? How would it come to a boy like him? I don’t know why he couldn’t find it with us, in the city—in his homeland. Maybe the boy is “crazy”, but “crazy” for the sake of art. …You thought: “I can see, I am etched in the boy’s heart, but he is still ‘flying,’ he is still striving to take off, he has ‘wind’ in his head.” … I did not live with you, but I didn’t have one single painting that didn’t breathe with your spirit and reflection.”

Return to France

Le Grand Cirque - Marc Chagall
Le Grand Cirque 1956

After seven years in exile, in 1948 Chagall returned to France with Virginia and David as well as Virginia’s daughter Jean. Their arrival coincided with the publication of Chagall’s illustrated edition of Dead Souls, which had been interrupted by the onset of the war.  In 1950, Chagall and his family moved south to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, on the French Riviera. Virginia left him the next year, but in 1952 Chagall met Valentina “Vava” Brodsky and married her shortly thereafter. Valentina, who became Chagall’s manager, is featured in several of his later portraits. The edition of Fables featuring his work was published in 1952, and after Chagall completed the etchings he had begun in 1930, his illustrated bible was published in 1956.

marc-chagall-house
Chagall’s studio in the South of France. Photo by Derry Moore

“Together, Marc and Vava Chagall planned their house of Provençal stone as a place for both work and serenity. Large windows permit the interior to share in the sophisticated simplicity of the olive trees the artist enjoys. He used to make a habit of strolling beneath them, but for the past year he has had difficulty walking, something he finds very exasperating.

There are only trees and shrubs around the house, no flowers. But inside, where there isn’t a trace of the clutter often so dear to artists, Vava Chagall has managed to compose impressive bouquets containing all the flowers of the south. They seem to have emerged from Chagall’s canvases to keep him company: In his work they’re assigned a symbolic role as a “manifestation of life.” Chagall’s studio today bears eloquent witness to an artist who has worked hard, day in, day out, right from the start.

Every meticulously ordered table exhibits gouaches, lithographs, sketches; an easel displays a large painting. Each morning, Chagall plunges into any one of an assortment of continuing projects and may spend the whole day absorbed in it. Ask him what time of the day he finds best for working, and he retorts, “I’m working even when I’m asleep!” It’s true: What other artist’s paintings are so filled with dreams, are so nocturnally phosphorescent?”

~ from an interview with the artist and his wife Valentina (Vava) from August 1984 issue of Architectural Digest.

During his time in exile, Chagall sent Picasso a letter from the United States requesting to meet him. At the end of Second World War, in France, their meeting was finally arranged. Picasso was living on the French coast at the time near Vallauris, working at the Madoura ceramic workshop and Chagall traveled out to meet him. They became friends, and frequently met for dinners, visited each other’s studios and corresponded for years until 1964.

Wedding Feast in the Nymphs' Grotto
Wedding Feast in the Nymphs’ Grotto 1956

In France, Chagall was prolific for the last 30 years of his life, continuing to paint on canvas while completing many large public projects in other media. Much of his important later work exists in the form of large scale commissions around the world. He began to branch out further, working in sculpture and ceramics as well as mastering the art of stained glass in the late 1950’s.

Chagall - Peace Window. Stained Glass UN - Photo Lois Conner
Peace Window. Stained Glass UN – Photo Lois Conner

Among the highlights from this period are his stained glass windows for the synagogue at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Centre in Jerusalem (completed 1961), the U.N. building in New York City (completed 1964), the Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz in France(completed 1968), the Art Institute of Chicago (1977) and the All Saint’s Church in Mainz, Germany (completed 1978). His stained-glass windows are considered to be some of the strongest work of his late career. For more of Chagall’s stained glass installations, see Installations, Ceramics & Sculpture.

Chagall also completed painting the ceiling of the Paris Opéra and murals for the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1964.

Romeo-&-Juliet-Litho-1964
Romeo & Juliet – Detail for Paris Opéra (1964)

In 1977 Chagall received the Grand Medal of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest accolade. That same year, he became one of only a handful of artists in history to receive a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre. 

La Revolution - 1937 1968
La Revolution – 1937 1968

Marc Chagall died on March 28, 1985, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Alpes-Maritimes, France at age 97. He was the last surviving master of European modernism, outliving Joan Miró by two years. Chagall left behind a vast collection of work, along with a rich legacy as an iconic Jewish artist and a pioneer of modernism. It has been said that Pablo Picasso was a triumph of the mind, but Chagall was the glory of the heart.  Picasso himself remarked in the 1950s: When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is. I’m not crazy about his roosters and asses and flying violinists, and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together. Some of the last things he’s done in Venice convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.

Although they had become friends since their first meeting in 1944, Picasso and Chagall had a falling out in 1964. Long story, but drinks and egos were involved. Chagall once said (post 1964) of his contemporary: “What a genius, that Picasso. It is a pity he doesn’t paint.” Chagall had even created a work titled Tired of Picasso as a response to his recent distaste with him, and his earlier piece Thinking of Picasso.

Chagall has left us with many fabulous quotes, but I believe these few words sums up life and art best:

“In the arts, as in life, everything is possible provided it is based on love.” – Marc Chagall

To see Chagall’s works in the ballet, theatre and opera go to …

Marc Chagall Theatre Works

To see more stained glass, as well as Chagall’s ceramics & sculpture go to …

Marc Chagall Installations & Ceramics

Marc Chagall Scène biblique
Chagall – Scène Biblique 1980

By Art Blog

Art Blog author Kathryn Kaiser is a figurative artist who lives and works in Central Ontario, Canada. Her preferred subject matter is human form, and her prime focus is expressing story. Her blog is a (somewhat) self-indulgent visual journal of inspiring art, artists and creatives.


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