Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Russia, in 1887, the eldest of nine children. His father worked curing herring and his mother ran a small shop to make ends meet. At an early age, Chagall showed a talent and love for painting and he worked for an artist as an apprentice and he worked as a retoucher with a local photographer. In one of his earliest paintings, The Kermesse, painted at the age of twenty one, one can see the theme and spirit of his work to come for the rest of his career. In the painting you see the theme of village activity in a funeral procession.
The figures are alive with movement and expression, making music and walking as if dancing. Chagall’s vision of humble village life transcends the poor conditions, suffering, and death. Acrobats and circus folk line the street and village town-scape, aswell as a scampering black cat. Folklore, fantasy, circus, and animals populate Chagall’s paintings for the next seventy years.
Chagall’s work does not fit neatly into the history of art, but well into a history of original thinking and fantasy art. He was not interested in the writings of Freud, but his work was dreamlike and appeared to be inspired by an imaginative unconscious. Dream and fantastic imagery was at Chagall’s fingertips. Quoting Francois Le Targat in his introduction in his book on Chagall, ‘We must rediscover the soul of our childhood and give ourselves up to simply marveling; for his work is imbued with the marvelous’ Is not ‘marvelous’, after all, to see red donkeys flying through the air, cocks carrying girls off on their backs, a fiddler who has chosen the roof of the house to play his festive tunes?’
About on leaving Vitebsk, the town of his childhood, Chagall said ‘he had carried it off with him for ever in his heart.’ Chagall left Vitebsk to work and study in St. Petersburg in 1908. With a series of help from art patrons and painters, Chagall was able to get recommendation for work and study with Bakst, the stage designer for the Ballets Russes and director of the Swanseva art school.
In 1909 Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld in Vitebsk, she was seven years younger than he, but of a higher social class. Bella Chagall was later to write about her first early impression of the artist, ‘Chagall has the appealing face of a young fau’ but then she compares him to a wild eyed animal, ‘He gestilates as if he were afraid to put his foot on the ground.
Has he just awoken? His hand has risen and forgotten to come down again’ ‘When he opens his mouth, I hardly know whether he wants to speak or to bite with his sharp, white teeth. Everything in him is movement, a pirouette; he is never still for an instant. As though he were afraid of everything. At every moment he is poised to leap into the air and flee.’ (from Lumieres allumees, translated by Ida Chagall)
With the help of his art patron, Vivaner, Chagall moved to Paris in 1910 to work in the city that was the Mecca of the arts, leaving Russia and Bella behind. Chagall said that his art, ‘desired Paris like a tree desires water.’ His experience in Paris was to be formative for his profession. Chagall tells about this time, living in La Ruche, a poor district of Paris, among other penniless painters, ‘Life in Montparnasse was marvelous! I used to work all night’When an insulted model began to cry in the next studio, when the Italians sang to the accompaniment of a mandolin, when Soutine came back from the Halles with a brace of putrid chickens to paint, I used to stand alone in my little board-walled cell, standing in front of my easel in the wretched light of a paraffin lamp. For a week, perhaps, the studio had not been swept. The floor was littered with stretchers, eggshells and empty soup tins of the cheapest variety. It was between those four walls that I wiped the dew from my eyes and became a painter.’He also said that it was in Paris he discovered color. He chose not to join a movement or school of art such as the Fauves or Cubists, but he knew many of the artists and was influenced by them. The Fauves influenced his use of color, now more pure and clear, less muddied. The cubists encouraged a de-structuring of imagery, such as seen in his paintings I and the Village, To Russia, to Donkeys and to Others, The Poet (Half Past Three) Golgotha, and Homage to Apollinaire.
Chagall had close relationships with many painters and poets including Guillaume Apollinaire, Andre Salmon, Leger, Laurens, Modigliani, Soutine, and the Delaunays. Between 1912 and 1914 Chagall showed at the Salon des Independents in Paris and in Amsterdam. Returning to Russia in 1914 he showed twenty five paintings at the official Moscow Exhibition and became friends with several great Russian poets. He married Bella in 1915 and his painting reflects his happiness from the marriage in such famous paintings as The Birthday, Double Portrait with Wine Glass, and Over the Town.
The upheaval of the Russian Revolution drew the nonpolitical Chagall into events. He was appointed Commissar of Art for Vitebsk, but became disillusioned after criticisms of his teaching techniques. He moved to Moscow in 1920 and then back to Paris in 1923 after a nine year stay in Russia. After a period of further hardship, Chagall began to receive more commissions and by 1930 his name was known worldwide.
With the outbreak of war, the Chagalls moved to the south of France and then to the US to escape the Nazi invasion. Chagall was kept busy during the war years painting theatrical and ballet designs. Bella died suddenly, just before the end of the war and Chagall was overcome with grief. He found solace in a relationship with Virginia Haggard in New York.
In 1947 Chagall returned to France and made his home in Vence. He married Valentine Brodsky, called Vava, in 1952. In 1962 he was commissioned to create 12 stained-glass windows for the Hadassah Hospital of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem. It was a major masterpiece and he said of it, ‘I felt my father and my mother were looking over my shoulder, and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews of yesterday and a thousand years ago.’
In 1964 he completed a canvas that covers the ceiling of the Opera in Paris, and two very large murals now in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He created the American Windows in 1977 for the Chicago Art Institute to celebrate the US bicentennial. In the American Windows Chagall celebrates the greatness of the United States as a country of freedom, liberty, culture and religious tolerance.
Marc Chagall died in 1985 and was buried in France at Saint-Paul. He left a legacy of inspirational art that was like none other. He assimilated modern developments of art into his own personal style, as his own voice stayed true to colorful dreams and fantasies from growing up in Vitebsk, Russia to his life and loves in the US and France. Chagall was one of the 20th century’s most important artists.