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Marc Chagall was born near the city of Vitebsk in 1887. In Russia, at that time, Jewish children were not allowed to attend regular Russian schools or universities due to policies of discrimination. Chagall received his primary education at the local Jewish religious school, where he studied Hebrew and the Bible and later in a Russian high school. This is where he encountered art for the first time.
Watching one of his classmates draw, he began copying images from books. Soon, he decided to become an artist and was taught for free by the realist artist Yehuda Yuri Pen. During this period in Russia, Jewish artists hid or denied their Jewish roots in order to avoid discrimination. But Chagall chose to cherish and publicly express his Jewish roots by integrating them into his art. His visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his hometown. The scenes of his childhood were so encrypted in his mind and charged with so much emotion that it can be said that every single of his paintings breathes with the spirit of Vitebsk, his natal village.
In 1906, Chagall moved to St. Petersburg which was then the capital of Russia and the center of the country's artistic life with its famous art schools. He enrolled in a prestigious art school and studied there for two years. By 1907 he had begun painting naturalistic self-portraits and landscapes.
During 1908 to 1910, Chagall studied under Leon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. Bakst, also Jewish, was a designer of decorative art and a famous draftsman designer of stage sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. While in St. Petersburg Chagall discovered experimental theater and the work of Paul Gauguin. He stayed in St. Petersburg until 1910, often visiting Vitebsk where he met and fell in love with Bella Rosenfeld.
In 1910 Chagall moved to Paris to develop his own artistic style. Cubism was then the dominant art form. But Chagall arrived from Russia with his gift for color that was foreign to most. He was first noticed and recognized by poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire who became Chagall’s first friends. Unable to speak French, Chagall sometimes wished he could fly back to Russia. Instead he painted about the riches of Russian folklore, his Jewish experiences, his family, and especially Bella.
Later, he enrolled at La Palette, an art academy, and also found work at another academy. He spent his free hours visiting galleries and museums, where he studied the works of other artists. It was in Paris that he learned the technique of gouache, which he used to paint Russian scenes.
During his time in Paris, Chagall was constantly reminded of Russia, as Paris was also home to many Russian painters, writers, poets, composers, and dancers. He painted relentlessly Jewish motifs and subjects, haunted by his life in Russia. He developed a repertoire of quirky motifs: the ghostly figure floating in the sky, the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the cows, the acrobats and musicians.
Chagall missed his fiancée, Bella. He accepted an invitation from a noted art dealer in Berlin to exhibit his work, his intention being to continue on to Russia, marry Bella, and then return with her to Paris. The exhibit was a huge success. However, the First World War broke out, closing the Russian border for an indefinite period. A year later, Chagall married Bella Rosenfeld and they had their first child, Ida. Despite the ongoing war, Chagall's spirits remained high, due to his happy marriage. The euphoric paintings of this time are the most lighthearted of his career.
When the October Revolution of 1917started Chagall was one of the Soviet Union's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, which enjoyed special privileges and prestige. Chagall was offered a position as a commissar of visual arts for the country, but instead took a position as commissar of arts for Vitebsk. This resulted in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College which became the most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union.
Chagall obtained for its faculty some of the most important artists in the country. He also added his first teacher Yehuda Pen. He tried to create a collective, each artist with their own unique style. However, this would prove to be difficult and Chagall resigned and moved to Moscow where he began exhibiting his work. He also began illustrating a number of Yiddish books with ink drawings. In Moscow he was offered a position as stage designer for the newly formed State Jewish Chamber Theater. The murals were forerunners of his later large-scale works, including murals for the New York Metropolitan and the Paris Opera.
In 1923, after spending two years living in primitive conditions, Chagall decided to move back to France so that his art could grow in an atmosphere of greater freedom. In Paris, he formed a business relationship with French art dealer Ambroise Vollard. This inspired him to begin creating etchings for a series of illustrated books, including Gogol's Dead Souls, the Bible, and the Fables of La Fontaine. These illustrations would come to represent his finest printmaking efforts. By 1926 he had his first exhibition in the United States at the Reinhardt gallery of New York which included about 100 works, although he did not travel to the opening. 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.
Not long after Chagall began his work on the Bible, Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany. The Nazis began their campaign against modernist art as soon as they seized power. After Germany invaded and occupied France, the Chagalls remained in France, unaware that French Jews were being sent to German concentration camps. Only much later did the Chagalls finally realize the danger they faced. Their only refuge was America, but they could not afford the bond that each immigrant had to provide upon entry. Chagall was saved by having his name added to the list of prominent artists, whose lives were at risk. He and Bella left France in May 1941, and arrived in New York on June 23, 1941, the next day after Germany invaded Russia.
Chagall had been awarded the Carnegie Prize in 1939 so when he arrived in America, he had already achieved international stature. However, he felt uneasy in a foreign country. He didn’t speak the language and felt lost. Moreover, he knew he had left France under Nazi occupation and that the fate of millions of other Jews was at risk. After a while, he began to settle down in New York which was full of writers, painters, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions. He spent time visiting galleries and museums, and befriended other painters. Chagall loved visiting the sections of New York where Jews lived. However most contemporary artists did not understand or even like his art. The Paris School, which was referred to as Surrealism, meant little to them. It would change when Pierre Matisse the son of recognized French artist Henri Matisse, became Chagall’s representative and held exhibitions in New York and Chicago in 1941. One of the earliest exhibitions included 21 of his masterpieces from 1910 to 1941.
In 1942, Chagall was offered a commission by choreographer Leonid Massid, of the New York Ballet Theatre to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet, Aleko. The result surpassed anything Chagall had done on canvas, and was a breathtaking experience, that all of New York City applauded.
World events however began to take on more importance for him. He heard that the Germans had destroyed his hometown and became greatly distressed. He heard about the concentration camps and learned more about the occupation of France. His worries were reflected in his art, where he painted subjects including the Crucifixion and scenes of war. His beloved Bella died suddenly in 1944. Chagall stopped all work for many months, and when he resumed his painting, his first pictures were concerned with preserving Bella's memory and the memory of millions of Jewish victims as well.
By 1946 his artwork was widely recognized. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a large exhibition with 40 years of his work. The war had ended and although Chagall was impressed by the greatness of the USA and the freedom that the country offered, he returned to France in 1948. There he saw for himself the destruction that the war had brought to Europe and the Jewish populations. It became an emotional and intellectual source of inspiration that existed only in imagination and memory. Chagall chose to live on the Cote d’Azur where he died in 1985.
Chagall doesn’t belong to any specific movement or school. He was able to blend the techniques of Fauvism and Cubism with his own unique artistic language, fed by his early life memories. Although he painted places, people and objects drawn from his life, he never offered pure reality but created his atmosphere through fantasy. Nobody but Chagall captured colors the way he did. Using only two or three colors, he was able to convey striking images. The colors in his work sculpt, give movement and rhythm. The result is astounding and unique. The best example is his painting of the ceiling of the Paris Opera, work commissioned by Andre Malraux then French Minister of Culture in 1963.
A pioneer of modern art, Chagall used his fantasy images as a form of visual metaphor combined with folk imagery. He invented a visual language using every artistic medium, including stained glass windows, ceramics and sculpture, tapestries, murals, theater sets and costumes. His exuberant images distill his personal experiences of suffering and tragedy. His talent allows everyone to respond. Marc Chagall remains the Jewish artist of the twentieth century, an artist whose paintings sparkle with poetry.
Chagall’s work can be viewed all over the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the Opera de Paris, the Metz cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims, the Chase Tower Plaza in Chicago, and the Marc Chagall Museum in his family home in Vitbesk.