Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Russian painter, was one of the great masters of the School of Paris and was also acclaimed as a forerunner of surrealism.
Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal on July 7, 1887, in Vitebsk to a poor Jewish family. The years of his childhood, the family circle, and his native village became the main themes of his art. These first impressions lingered in his mind like primeval images and were transformed into paintings with such titles as the Candlestick with the Burning Lights, the Cow and Fish Playing the Violin, the Man Meditating on the Scriptures, the Fiddler on the Roof, and I and My Village. According to André Breton, with Chagall "the metaphor made its triumphant return into modern painting." And it has been said that Pablo Picasso was a triumph of the mind but Chagall was the glory of the heart.
In 1907 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he attended the school of the imperial Society for the Protection of the Arts and studied briefly with Leon Bakst. These were years of hardship and poverty for Chagall. In Bakst's studio he had his first contact with the modern movement which was sweeping Paris, and it liberated his inner resources. His pictures of this early period are lyrical evocations of his childhood.
With some help from a patron, Chagall went to Paris in 1910. The avant-garde poets Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, and Guillaume Apollinaire and the painters Roger de La Fresnaye, Robert Delaunay, and Amedeo Modigliani became his friends. Chagall participated in the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne in 1912, but it was his first one-man show in Herwarth Walden's Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin which established him internationally as a leading artist.
Travels Inspired New Works
Chagall spent World War I in Russia. During the Revolution he was made a commissar for art but resigned after a clash with the suprematist painters in 1919. In 1922 left Russia for good, going to Berlin and then back to Paris. The art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned him to illustrate Gogol's Dead Souls (96 etchings) in 1923 and La Fontaine's Fables (100 etchings) in 1927.
A journey to Palestine and Syria in 1931 gave Chagall firsthand knowledge of the land, which he depicted in his illustrations for the Bible (1931-1939 and 1952-1956). He was the greatest interpreter of the Bible since Rembrandt, and he used biblical themes in paintings, graphic works, and stained glass (2 windows for the Cathedral in Metz, 1960 and 1962; 12 windows for the medical center in Jerusalem, 1961). Chagall started a new series of large paintings, the "Biblical Message," in 1963.
Chagall traveled extensively in France and elsewhere from 1932 to 1941, when he settled in the United States, where he remained until 1947. He designed the sets and costumes for the ballets Aleko (1942) and The Firebird (1945). Bella, his beloved wife, inspiration, and model, whom he had married in 1915, died in 1944.
In 1948, the year after Chagall returned to France, he started his series of lithographs, Arabian Nights. He began working in ceramics in 1950 and made his first sculptures the following year. He married again in 1952 to Valentina "Vava" Brodsky. His famous "Paris" series, a sequence of fantastic scenes set against the background of views of the city, was created between 1953 and 1956.
Honored for His Work
Chagall continued to create great artworks throughout the later years of his life. In the 1960s and 1970s, his stained glass art appeared in such buildings as the United Nations. In 1973, a museum of his works alone was opened in Nice, France. In 1977, the Louvre exhibited 62 of his paintings, an extremely rare event for a living artist. Chagall died at the age of 97 in 1985.
Further Reading on Marc Chagall
Alexander, Sidney, Marc Chagall: A Biography G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.
Chagall, Marc, My Life Peter Owen, 1965.
Compton, Susann Chagall Harry N. Abrams, 1985.