Chagall lived to a grand old age and produced a profusion of artistic works that spanned many categories, from painting to poetry to art prints, as well as book illustrations, artistic stained glass, ceramics, murals, tapestries and stage sets.
The celebrated Russian-French artist, Marc Chagall, was born in Vitebsk, Russia (Belarus), on July 7, 1887. At the time, over half the population of Vitebsk was Jewish and Chagall was the eldest son in a large, Lithuanian Jewish family; his original Jewish name was Moishe Shagal.
Chagall's early life is amply described in his autobiography, "My Life", where he gives details of his days as a student and depicts life in his home town, Vitebsk.
The book also describes the Hasidic Judaism that his family devotedly followed and that influenced Chagall's art.
As a boy, he first attended the local Jewish religious school, and then, at thirteen, a Russian high school. It was there that he casually discovered art. Having never seen real art before (evidently his previous school, as well as his home, had unadorned walls), he was entranced on seeing another student drawing a picture. When Chagall asked the student how he did it, the student simply told him to copy pictures in books. Marc immediately followed this advice and found his vocation. This was the turning point. He persuaded a local artist and art teacher, Yuri Pen, to accept him in the artist's drawing school. However, after a few months, Marc realised that the academic portrait painting that he was studying was not exactly his ideal art. It was time to move on.
In 1906, he moved to the capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg, which was also the capital of all artistic activity. Here, he studied for two years in a prestigious art school, learning how to do realistic landscapes and self-portraits. He then became a student of Leon Batsk who expanded Marc's horizons to include decorative art and other art forms. In Saint Petersburg, Chagall also discovered experimental art, poetry and theatre, and was fascinated by avant-garde artists such as Gauguin. During this time, on one of his frequent visits to his home town, Vitebsk, he met Bella Rosenfeld, who later became his wife.
In 1910, he felt the call, as did many artists in this glittering epoch, and moved to Paris. He immediately came face to face with cubism, which was all the rage in Paris at that time, and set out to explore all the city's artistic trends. He was at first confused and lonely, he did not speak French; but he soon responded to the Parisian enchantment and every stimulus was his to absorb. He started taking lessons at the Académie de la Palette and spent his free time visiting museums and art galleries, where he was dazzled by the great art on display. He started to rub shoulders with the most innovative artists of the time: Modigliani, Matisse, Braque, Picasso. His art was influenced by the French avant-garde movement, to which he added his vivid Belarus colours. The cubism of Picasso, the arabesques of Matisse and the bold colours of Van Gogh all inspired him. His artistic output at this time was a mix of Parisian scenes, many featuring the Eiffel Tower, and country scenes of Vitebsk that he painted from memory. It was a rich period in which he produced some of his best-known works, such as "The Fiddler" (1912). Although Chagall did not want to be associated with any particular school of artistic trends, it is "Surrealism" that has benefited from, and become associated with, Chagall's quirky proportions, floating figures and illogical juxtapositions.
In 1914, Chagall accepted to exhibit his work at the prestigious Sturm Gallery in Berlin. From Berlin, he returned to his beloved Vitebsk, where he planned to marry Bella, who had never been out of his thoughts, and return with her to Paris. Things did not go according to plan. Bella's parents were not well inclined to surrender their lovely daughter to an eccentric artist from a poor family who could not demonstrate clearly how he was going to support her. Marc decided to become famous enough to be accepted as a son-in-law, and began painting lovely, airy, happy pictures of the town, the countryside and of Bella. He stayed long in Vitebsk as he could not go back to Paris; the start of the First World War had closed the Russian border. Finally, after a year, Marc and Bella married, becoming a real family when their first child, Ida, was born. Marc began exhibiting his art in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and his works began to arouse interest amongst collectors. He was slowly gaining the recognition he sought.
The October Revolution of 1917 was a dangerous period and brought about many changes. Chagall was already an acclaimed artist and represented Russia's modernist avant-garde art movement. He was hailed as the "aesthetic arm of the revolution" and became the Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk. There, he founded the Vitebsk Arts College, the "most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union".
The State Jewish Chamber Theatre was due to open it doors in 1921 in Moscow and Chagall was commissioned to provide the background murals and create the scenography. The family moved to Moscow. By and by, the restricting conditions and shortages that prevailed after the war saw the Chagalls obliged to move into cheaper lodgings outside Moscow, obliging Marc to a daily commute to the Malakhovka Jewish Boys' Centre where he worked as an art teacher. During his Moscow period he also provided the illustrations for a series of Yiddish poetry, and he wrote his autobiography, "My Life". Given the difficulties of living in Moscow, he decided to expatriate and return to Paris, as did many artists at this uncompromising time.
Return to France
Thanks to the intervention of the Lithuanian ambassador, he managed to get an exit visa to leave Russia; it finally arrived in 1923 and the Chagall family left for France. A stop in Berlin to reclaim the paintings left there after his 1914 exhibition was unfruitful. All the paintings were gone. Undaunted, he resolved to recreate the lost pictures from memory. In Paris, he established a business relationship with Ambroise Vollard, a prestigious art dealer, for whom he produced numerous illustrations for books, including the Bible, Gogol's Dead Souls and the Fables of La Fontaine. He travelled around France. A trip to the Côte d'Azur with its sunny colours, wide sky and blue Mediterranean, inspired him to blithely fill his sketch-book, while a short stay in Brittany produced the enchanting "Fenêtre sur l'Ile de Bréhat" painting.
Chagall's illustrations for the Bible, The Old Testament, came from the heart. He travelled to Palestine where he felt instantly at home. He immersed himself in the history of the Jewish people; he was extraordinarily inspired. Chagall himself said: "In the East I found the Bible and part of my own being." He worked resolutely on the Bible for years. The work suffered interruptions, mainly the death of Vollard and World War II, and the project was not actually completed until 1956. It was worth the wait. The illustrations have been described as "monumental" and "full of divine inspiration".
Escape from Europe
When Hitler came to power in Germany, all art, except Teutonic realism, was in danger of being destroyed as "undesirable". This danger spread to the artists themselves and, with the start of war and Germany's steady invasion of Europe, artists in many countries were at risk, Jewish artists most of all. Thus Chagall found himself, whilst living in Marseille and under the collaborationist Vichy government, in danger of becoming a victim of the new anti-Semitic laws which were already removing all Jews from public and academic positions. Absorbed by his work, he was not immediately aware of the danger and left it rather late to try to get away. His only chance was America. The American Vice-Consul in Marseille, Hiram Bingham IV, provided forged visas for artists and intellectuals and helped over 2000 people to escape. The Chagalls left for America in May, 1941.
Chagall was already known in America, he had been awarded a Carnegie Prize for "Les Fiancés", but he did not feel at ease in New York. Again he felt out-of-place, again coping with a language he could not speak. He soon discovered the Lower East Side, the Jewish quarter, where he bought Jewish food and read the Yiddish press. Slowly, he settled in; he spent hours in New York's famous art galleries, and met other artists who had fled Europe. At first his art was not well accepted; his "Parisian Surrealism" was not understood. Then, slowly, his exhibitions started getting better reviews; art critic McBride wrote: "his colours sparkle with poetry ... authentically Russian..." He was then commissioned to provide the backdrops and stage settings for the New York Ballet. It was a huge success, largely due to his magnificent backdrops.
War and post-war
Chagall was distressed at the war news from Europe, particularly the total destruction of Vitebsk: out of 240,000 inhabitants, only 118 survived. He was saddened at the terrible persecution of the Jewish people. Bella died in 1944 due to a virus infection which had gone untreated due to a chronic shortage of medicine. Chagall was grief-stricken and did not work for a year; he counted Bella among the Holocaust victims. After a year of living with his daughter, Ida, Marc started seeing Virginia Haggard; their relationship lasted seven years. After the war, in 1946, New York's MOMA put on a huge exhibition of Chagall's works, spanning forty years of artistic activity.
Return to Europe
Although Chagall appreciated the greatness and freedom of America, his heart was in Europe. In 1948, he left New York. He travelled widely in Europe and finally settled on the Côte d'Azur which had become a veritable artistic centre, favoured by artists such as Picasso and Matisse. Through his daughter, he met Valentina Brodsky, known as Vava, who had a similar Russian-Jewish background to his own. She was at first his secretary, then things moved quickly and they married in 1952. These were busy years, with Chagall turning his hand to various art forms: sculpture, decorated ceramics, tapestries, murals, mosaics and stained-glass windows, as well as painting and graphic art. His beautiful stained-glass art adorns many windows, the most important being in the Hebrew University Synagogue in Jerusalem where Chagall's twelve splendid windows depict the twelve tribes of Israel. "Peace" is the name of the huge stained-glass window in the United Nations building that he created in 1964. Other glorious Chagall windows can be admired in Germany, Switzerland and UK.
The Paris Opera
Chagall was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opera in 1963. The choice of a Russian Jew to work on a French national monument caused some controversy but, undaunted, the 77-year-old Chagall went ahead and undertook the mammoth project. It took him a year to complete. All criticism was silenced at its unveiling in September, 1964, and this magnificent ceiling was declared "a great contribution to French culture". His last great work was a tapestry commissioned for the Chicago Institute of Rehabilitation but he died just before its completion, in 1985. He is buried in the multi-denominational cemetery of Saint Paul de Vence, where he had lived. He is considered the "last master of European modernism".