Sunday, 7 July 2013


“All colours are the friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites.” - Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall (Moishe Shagal) was born on July 7, 1887,  in the village of Vitebsk, Byelorussia. He was the oldest of nine children born to a working-class Jewish family. In his career, he was associated with several major artistic styles and one of the most successful artists of the 20th century. He was an early modernist, and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.

In Russia at that time, Jewish children were not allowed to attend regular Russian schools or universities. Their movement within the city was also restricted. Chagall therefore received his primary education at the local Jewish religious school, where he studied Hebrew and the Bible. At the age of 13, his mother tried to enrol him in a Russian high school, which was not allowed. Chagall’s mother offered the headmaster 50 roubles to let him attend, which he accepted and Marc attended school.

A turning point of his artistic life came when he first noticed a fellow student drawing. Chagall would later say that there was no art of any kind in his family’s home and the concept was totally alien to him. When Chagall asked the schoolmate how he learned to draw, his friend replied, “Go and find a book in the library, idiot, choose any picture you like, and just copy it”. He soon began copying images from books and found the experience so rewarding he then decided he wanted to become an artist.

At age 20 he began to study painting, first in Vitebsk, then in St. Petersburg. His distinctive style was already beginning to appear in his early works.
 In 1910 he began four years of living in Paris, a city that kept drawing him back for the rest of his life. In Paris, he became acquainted with art movements of the time, including Fauvism and Cubism. He also became acquainted with leading artists of the time, including Braque, Picasso, Delaunay, Leger, and others.

Chagall held a very successful, one-man show in Berlin in 1914, as part of an eventual journey home.
At the outbreak of WWI, Chagall returned home to Vitebsk, where he married Bella Rosenfeld. He worked in Vitebsk for several years and became director of the Vitebsk Academy of Arts. He moved to Moscow in 1920 and worked on stage decor and painted panels for the avant-garde Jewish Theatre. After it was made clear he would not have the freedom to develop, given the political realities of Marxist socialism, he left Moscow for Europe in 1923.

After arriving in France, he met French art dealer Ambroise Vollard and started creating etchings for future publications. These were not published until years later due to Vollard’s death and WWII. Chagall’s paintings were shown at galleries in New York as well as Paris, Berlin, and other European cities. He was commissioned by Vollard to produce a series of etchings illustrating the Old Testament version of the Bible. These were also not published until after WWII. During his travels, Chagall fell in love with the Cote d’Azur. Chagall eventually moved away from Paris to a villa near Porte d’Auteuil.

Chagall continued to work in France despite the growing Anti-Semitism of the Nazi movement and the invasion of France by Germany in 1939. He was eventually convinced by his daughter Ida of the urgency to leave France. Marc and Bella first travelled to Marseilles, France and eventually left for the United States in May of 1941. Their daughter Ida joined them a short time later.

Marc Chagall arrived in New York City in June, 1941. In addition to paintings, he worked on theatre sets and costumes. His paintings were exhibited in New York, Chicago, and Paris. His wife Bella died suddenly in 1944 due to a viral infection. Marc ceased all work for almost a year. In 1946, after the end of WWII the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held an exhibition showing 40 years of Chagall’s work. He had become very well known, and he began making plans to return to France.

Chagall returned to Paris in 1948 and signed Teriade (Stratis Eleftheriades) to publish his graphic works. He settled in Vence, in Provence in 1950. In addition to painting, he continued to create graphic works. Many of his earlier etchings and lithographs were finally published in the early 1950’s. His daughter Ida introduced him to Valentine Brodsky, whom he later married. In this period, he expanded the mediums in which he worked to include ceramics, stone sculptures, mosaics, and tapestries.

In 1958, he designed scenery and costumes for the ballet Daphne and Chloe for the Paris Opera. This led to other public commissions in the 1960s, including stained glass windows for the Hadassah Synagogue near Jerusalem, the United Nations, and several cathedrals in Europe. He designed a new ceiling for the Paris Opera House and panels for the Lincoln Center in New York. He also produced what many consider his best graphic works, the Daphne and Chloe suite of lithographs in 1961.

In 1966, Chagall moved from Vence to St. Paul de Vence (still in Provence). Chagall’s reputation continued to grow. He continued painting, producing graphic works, and producing public commissions. His works were exhibited at the galleries and museums throughout the world, including the Louvre and Petit Palais in Paris. He produced the America Windows for America’s Bicentennial celebration in 1977 in gratitude for America taking his family in during WWII. These windows can be viewed today at the Art Institute of Chicago.

He died March 28, 1985 in St. Paul de Vence, where he was buried. His long, prolific career and distinctive themes and use of color make him one of the acknowledge masters of 20th Century modern art.

The painting above, “The Circus Horse” of about 1964 illustrates Chagall’s style admirably with its free, expressive use of colour and sprightly draughtsmanship. The figures counterbalance the expanses of bright colour and juxtaposition of human figures and animals (a device Chagall often uses) is particularly apt here in the circus. Chagall used this theme many times in his artistic life and the bright, multicolour action of the subject suited his sensibilities.

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