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The Wild and Wondrous World of Marc Chagall

Photo of Marc Chagall
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Photo of Marc Chagall

One of the most celebrated artists of all time, Russian painter Marc Chagall’s dreamy, whimsical stories spanned an astonishing range of media including painting, murals, tapestries, stained glass and ceramics. Toying with the languages of avant-garde Paris including Surrealism and Expressionism, he remained figurative, weaving heartfelt, intimate human stories about love, joy, music and happiness into his vibrant, fantastical scenes, encouraging millions to embrace the simple act of being alive, even through the darkest of times.

“Strange Town”

Over Vitebsk, 1915
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Over Vitebsk, 1915

Eldest of nine siblings, Marc Chagall was born under the name Movcha Chagall, into a poor family in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk. Fragile and sensitive, he commented, “I was scared of growing up.” Instead he immersed himself in the wilderness and the small town, an environment that would come to influence the settings in his adult paintings. He often found provincial life frustrating, later calling Vitebsk “a strange town, an unhappy town, a boring town.” Chagall’s parents were Hasidic Jews, who banned all imagery from the house, yet the young artist persuaded his parents to let him take art lessons with a local portraitist.

 


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Rejecting Classical Training

In 1906, when he was 19, Chagall left for St Petersburg to study at the Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts, but quickly became frustrated with the strict programme of copying classical busts. Stricken with poverty, he often had to skip meals, but found a small income as a sign painter. In an independent art class run by Russian artist Leon Bakst Chagall finally found a likeminded spirit – Bakst introduced Chagall to the wonders of the Parisian avant-garde, and before long, Chagall’s heart was set on the city of lights.

Finding Joy in Paris

The Fiddler, 1912-13
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The Fiddler, 1912-13

Chagall was able to finance his move to Paris in 1911 through the support of a member of Russia’s elective assembly. In Paris he met his idols including artists Fernand Leger, Chaim Soutine and the writer Guillaume Apollinaire. Chagall was endlessly prolific, producing some of his most expressive and inventive works of art, sometimes working through the night in a frenzied state. Complex, myriad compositions featuring animal-human hybrids and floating figures against vivid backgrounds came to typify his early Parisian art.

“Blue Air, Love and Flowers…”

Marc Chagall with Bella
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Marc Chagall with Bella

Chagall made what he thought would be a brief return visit to Vitebsk in 1914, but the outbreak of war halted his return to Paris. Some years earlier Chagall had begun a romance with the wealthy, intellectual Bella Rosenfeld in Russia, but her parents had warned her not to marry a starving artist. Against their wishes, the pair married in 1915, and had a daughter the following year. The love he felt for Bella was frequently the subject for Chagall’s paintings, while he commented, “I had only to open the window of my room and blue air, love and flowers entered with her…”

The Bolshevik Revolution

White Crucifixion, 1938
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White Crucifixion, 1938

When the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, Chagall felt free to embrace his Jewish heritage and even opened his own art school in Vitebsk. But under the changing face of Marxism and Leninism his art no longer fit with Social Realist ideals – he, Bella and their young daughter returned to Paris in 1922. Through influential art dealer Ambroise Vollard, Chagall received a series of high profile, public art commissions, though he often faced anti-Semitic discrimination. In an act of defiance, he produced White Crucifixion, 1938, capturing Christ as a symbol of Jewish suffering. The French Surrealists also had a profound influence on his art during the time.

 


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Dark Times in America

Like many artists, Chagall was forced to leave Paris to escape the Nazi persecution of Jews as war broke out, setting off with his family to New York in 1940. His six years in America were not a happy time and he never truly felt like he belonged, particularly because he refused to learn English. Tragedy struck when Bella died prematurely in 1942 of a viral infection, after which time Chagall said, “everything turned black.”

Final Years in France

Paris Opera Ceiling, 1964
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Paris Opera Ceiling, 1964

Chagall was able to eventually find love again, in Virginia Haggard McNeil, with whom Chagall went on to have a son. Though the relationship fell apart, Chagall met a new partner in Valentina Brodsky and married her in 1952, settling in the South of France. By his later years Chagall had achieved international fame, leading to major public art commissions, including a ceiling mural at the Paris Opera and a series of stained-glass windows. Much loved by the public, among wider art circles Chagall has often been criticised for the naive, childlike manner of his art, which conflicted with avant-garde abstraction. Though he often addressed war-time themes, this strand of his art has also often been overlooked in favour of his decorative subjects. Even so, his ideas are recognised by many art historians as a vital branch of Surrealism, and as a much-needed salve from the horrors of war-time trauma.

Most Expensive Art

Some of Chagall’s most lusted after artworks include:

Les AAmoureux au Bouquet, Ete, 1927-30, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $917,000 in 2013.
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Les AAmoureux au Bouquet, Ete, 1927-30, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $917,000 in 2013.
Bestiaire et Musique, 1969, sold for $4,183,615, at Seoul Auction House in Hong Kong in 2010.
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Bestiaire et Musique, 1969, sold for $4,183,615, at Seoul Auction House in Hong Kong in 2010.
Big Circus, 1956, sold for $16 million in 2007 at Sotheby’s New York.
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Big Circus, 1956, sold for $16 million in 2007 at Sotheby’s New York.
Les Amoureux, 1928, sold in Sotheby’s New York in 2017 for a staggering $28.5 million.
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Les Amoureux, 1928, sold in Sotheby’s New York in 2017 for a staggering $28.5 million.

Did you know?

Marc Chagall often said that he was “born dead” – he was an unresponsive baby who didn’t make a sound just after being born and had to be dunked in a trough of cold water to make him cry.

A fragile and timid child, Chagall often had fainting spells and developed a stutter, both of which he claimed were triggered by a fear of growing up.

In Chagall’s first art lessons with a local portrait artist in Vitebsk, he painted almost everything in a vivid shade of violet, revealing his early inclination towards bright colour.

In these early art lessons, the family’s meagre income meant Chagall often had to paint on burlap bean sacks, which, once brought home, his sisters would use as covers for the freshly washed floors or to fill in gaps in the chicken coop!

As an art student in St Petersburg, Chagall was so poor he could barely afford to eat, and often collapsed from hunger.

 


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In his early years in Paris, Chagall was so painfully poor that he claims he sometimes survived on half a herring a day.

In another bid to save money, Chagall often painted nude, so he didn’t ruin the only set of clothes he owned.

As an adult, Chagall’s shyness never really left him, even after he had achieved fame and success. Sometimes, when approached on the street and asked if he was Chagall, he would deny it, and point to a random stranger, saying “Maybe that’s him?”

Chagall had three long term romantic partners, two children and one stepchild. He often portrayed the women he was romantically involved with in his artworks, most predominantly his first love, Bella – as inspired by his paintings, Chagall and Bella are often referred to today as the “floating lovers.”

Pablo Picasso revered Chagall’s imagery, saying, “I don’t know where he gets those images… He must have an angel in his head.”

Detail of a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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