Marc Chagall’s dreamy, poetic landscapes fused with religion and fantasy made him one of the most celebrated Russian artists of the 20th century. His work spans a variety of mediums (as with many early Modernists) including painting, production design, stained glass, ceramic, tapestries and illustrations. His art is characterized by strong, bright colors and images suffused with a child-like joyousness.
The eldest of nine children, Moishe Segal was born in July of 1887 to a poor Hassidic family in Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk. His father worked for a herring merchant while his mother sold groceries from their house. His grandfather was employed as a cantor in a synagogue. Vitebsk had a population of less than 70,000 at the time, and more than half that population was Jewish. Hence Chagall grew up in a deeply religious community that had had its roots in Belarus for over 150 years, and the influence of that culture is imprinted upon his work.
He attended Jewish primary school as a child before bribing his way into a secular gymnasium, even though Tsarist Russian disallowed such intermingling. In 1906, he was admitted into Yehuda Pen’s private art school for two months.
The next year Chagall moved to the Russian capital with 27 rubles in his pockets. The policy regarding the movement of Jewish citizens was more discriminatory at that time and the young artist resorted to begging favors from influential members of his community. He lived on a stringent budget, often going hungry, but he found himself at the vortex of a cultural and political revolution. Magazines expounded the tenets of French Fauvism, Italian Futurism, German Expressionism – introducing new ideas to a new generation.
Chagall absorbed the fresh concepts put in front of him while developing his own reference points that were based in the past. For two years he studied art at Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting while working at the Jewish magazine Voskhod in an editorial capacity. He attended workshops and courses by artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, and in 1910 mounted his first exhibition at the editorial office of the magazine Apollon.
It was during his time in St. Petersburg that Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a jeweler, and fell in love. Although they would not marry till 1915, she became Chagall’s muse and her influence on his internal world is evident in his work.
Maxim Vinaver, a prominent Jewish lawyer and leader, offered the young painter a scholarship in 1910, and Chagall moved to Paris to rent a studio. During his time there, he attended various lectures and classes at free academies, visited exhibitions and salons in the day and painted by night. He began living in a building called La Rouche, which served as an art center for poor foreign painters and Parisian bohemians. His closeness to the poets and painters of the day resulted in an accelerated output of many seminal pieces within a short period of time, including “The Violinist”, “To My Betrothed”, “Paris Through the Window”, “Golgotha”, “The Pinch of Snuff”, “The Cattle Dealer” and “I and the Village”.
Marc Chagall exhibited scores of canvases and over one hundred watercolors in Berlin in 1914. A few more casual shows along with other artists were popular with the public and commercially successful. He returned to Vitebsk the following year to marry Bella and visit his family. But the First World War started and delayed Chagall’s return to Europe indefinitely.
The World Wars
With the help of his wife’s brother, Chagall avoided enlistment in the army by finding work at the Military Industrial Committee as a painter. He spent the next eight years of his life living and working in Moscow. Chagall only returned to France with his family in 1923 and in the subsequent years created “The Bible” illustrations. But by the late 1930s, the Nazis gained power, and once the Second World War started, he once more had to be hurriedly extricated from France, along with other artists, through a rescue operation run by the Americans. His work from this difficult political period was multidimensional – some paintings are charged with a new energy for everyday life while others reflect grief and hardship. The increasing persecution of Jews resulted in a number of intensely religious pieces, including “Red Jew” and “The Feast of the Tabernacles”. Chagall also focused on his personal love for his wife, using her as a model for “Bella with White Collar” and finding inspiration in their relationship for “Pink Lovers” and “Birthday”.
The Last Years
It was in August 1944 that the family learnt that Paris had been finally liberated from the Nazis. They were impatient to return to France, but within days of learning of the end of the war, Bella passed away of sepsis. Struck with grief, Chagall produced two works in memory of his first love: “Around Her” and “The Wedding Lights”.
Marc Chagall continued to work well into his late nineties, creating paintings, mosaics, sculptures and sets. He died in the elevator of his studio building, after a long day of hard work.
Date of Birth: July 6, 1887
Place of Birth: Liozna, Russian Empire
Date of Death: March 28, 1985
Place of Death: Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France
Occupation: Painting, Stained Glass, Sculpture
Movement: Cubism, Expressionism
Education: Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting
Will God or someone give me the power to breathe my sigh into my canvases, the sigh of prayer and sadness, the prayer of salvation, of rebirth?
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