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Marc Chagall (1887-1985) Artist Biography and Art Gallery Collection
Marc Chagall, born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal on 6 July 1887 was a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. He was one of the early Modernists, who was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic format, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints. Marc Chagall had a poetic, figurative style that made him one of the most popular modern artists, while his long life and varied output made him one of the most internationally recognized. While many of his peers pursued ambitious experiments that led often to abstraction, Marc Chagall's distinction lies in his steady faith in the power of figurative art, one that he maintained despite absorbing ideas from Fauvism and Cubism.
Marc Chagall was the eldest of nine children. The family name, Shagal, is a variant of the name Segal, which in a Jewish community was usually borne by a Levitic family. His father was employed by a herring merchant, and his mother, Feige-Ite, sold groceries from their home. His father worked hard, carrying heavy barrels but earning only 20 Rubles each month (the average wages across the Russian Empire being 13 Rubles a month). One of the main sources of income of the Jewish population of the town was from the manufacture of clothing that was sold throughout Russia. They also made furniture and various agricultural tools. From the late 18th century to the First World War, the Russian government confined Jews to living within the Pale of Settlement, which included modern Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, almost exactly corresponding to the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth recently taken over by Imperial Russia. This caused the creation of Jewish market-villages throughout today's Eastern Europe, with their own markets, schools, hospitals, and other community institutions.
Most of what is known about Marc Chagall's early life has come from his autobiography, My Life. In it, he described the major influence that the culture of Hasidic Judaism had on his life as an artist. Chagall related how he realized that the Jewish traditions in which he had grown up were fast disappearing and that he needed to document them. Vitebsk itself had been a center of that culture dating from the 1730's with its teachings derived from the Kabbalah. Chagall scholar Susan Tumarkin Goodman describes the links and sources of his art to his early home: Chagall's art can be understood as the response to a situation that has long marked the history of Russian Jews. Though they were cultural innovators who made important contributions to the broader society, Jews were considered outsiders in a frequently hostile society.
Marc Chagall moved to Saint Petersburg in 1906 which was then the capital of Russia and the center of the country's artistic life with its famous art schools. Since Jews were not permitted into the city without an internal passport, he managed to get a temporary passport from a friend. He enrolled in a prestigious art school and studied there for two years. By 1907, he had begun painting naturalistic self-portraits and landscapes. Chagall was an active member of the irregular freemasonic lodge, the Grand Orient of Russia's Peoples. He belonged to the "Vitebsk" lodge. Between 1908 and 1910, Chagall was a student of Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. While in Saint Petersburg, he also discovered experimental theater and the work of such artists as Paul Gauguin. Bakst, who was also Jewish, was a designer of decorative art and was famous as a draftsman designer of stage sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, and helped Chagall by acting as a role model. Bakst moved to Paris a year later. Art historian Raymond Cogniat writes that after living and studying art on his own for four years, "Chagall entered into the mainstream of contemporary art. ...His apprenticeship over, Russia had played a memorable initial role in his life." Chagall stayed in Saint Petersburg until 1910, often visiting Vitebsk where he met Bella Rosenfeld. In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me".
Marc Chagall relocated to Paris in 1910 to develop his artistic style. Art historian and curator James Sweeney notes that when Chagall first arrived in Paris, Cubism was the dominant art form, and French art was still dominated by the "materialistic outlook of the 19th century". But Chagall arrived from Russia with "a ripe color gift, a fresh, unashamed response to sentiment, a feeling for simple poetry and a sense of humor", he adds. These notions were alien to Paris at that time, and as a result, his first recognition came not from other painters but from poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. Art historian Jean Leymarie observes that Chagall began thinking of art as "emerging from the internal being outward, from the seen object to the psychic outpouring", which was the reverse of the Cubist way of creating. He therefore developed friendships with Guillaume Apollinaire and other Avant-Garde luminaries such as Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger.
Marc Chagall's early days in Paris were hard for the 23-year-old, who was lonely in the big city and unable to speak French. Some days he "felt like fleeing back to Russia, as he daydreamed while he painted, about the riches of Russian folklore, his Hasidic experiences, his family, and especially Bella". He enrolled at Académie de La Palette, an avant-garde school of art where the painters Jean Metzinger, André Dunoyer de Segonzac and Henri Le Fauconnier taught, and also found work at another academy. He would spend his free hours visiting galleries and salons, especially the Louvre; artists he came to admire included Rembrandt, the Le Nain brothers, Chardin, van Gogh, Renoir, Pissarro, Matisse, Gauguin, Courbet, Millet, Manet, Monet, Delacroix, and others. It was in Paris that he learned the technique of gouache, which he used to paint Belarusian scenes. During his time in Paris, Chagall was constantly reminded of his home in Vitebsk, as Paris was also home to many painters, writers, poets, composers, dancers, and other immigrants from the Russian Empire. However, "night after night he painted until dawn", only then going to bed for a few hours, and resisted the many temptations of the big city at night."My homeland exists only in my soul", he once said. He continued painting Jewish motifs and subjects from his memories of Vitebsk, although he included Parisian scene, the Eiffel Tower in particular, along with portraits. Many of his works were updated versions of paintings he had made in Russia, transposed into Fauvist or Cubist keys Chagall developed a whole repertoire of quirky motifs: ghostly figures floating in the sky, ... the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down. The majority of his scenes of life in Vitebsk were painted while living in Paris, and "in a sense they were dreams", notes Lewis. Their "undertone of yearning and loss", with a detached and abstract appearance, caused Apollinaire to be "struck by this quality", calling them "surnaturel" His "animal/human hybrids and airborne phantoms" would later become a formative influence on Surrealism.
Marc Chagall, however, did not want his work to be associated with any school or movement and considered his own personal language of symbols to be meaningful to himself. But Sweeney notes that others often still associate his work with "illogical and fantastic painting", especially when he uses "curious representational juxtapositions". Sweeney writes that "This is Chagall's contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other". André Breton said that "with him alone, the metaphor made its triumphant return to modern painting"
Marc Chagall missed his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebs, "He thought about her day and night", writes Baal-Teshuva—and was afraid of losing her, Chagall decided to accept an invitation from a noted art dealer in Berlin to exhibit his work, his intention being to continue on to Belarus, marry Bella, and then return with her to Paris. Chagall took 40 canvases and 160 gouaches, watercolors and drawings to be exhibited. The exhibit, held at Herwarth Walden's Sturm Gallery was a huge success, "The German critics positively sang his praises." People's Art School where the Vitebsk Museum of Modern Art was situated After the exhibit, he continued on to Vitebsk, where he planned to stay only long enough to marry Bella. However, after a few weeks, the First World War began, closing the Russian border for an indefinite period. A year later he married Bella Rosenfeld and they had their first child, Ida. According to Lewis, "The euphoric paintings of this time, which show the young couple floating balloon-like over Vitebsk—its wooden buildings faceted in the Delaunay manner—are the most lighthearted of his career". His wedding pictures were also a subject he would return to in later years as he thought about this period of his life. Bella with White Collar, 1917.
Marc Chagall began exhibiting his work in Moscow in 1915, first exhibiting his works at a well-known salon and in 1916 exhibiting pictures in St. Petersburg. He again showed his art at a Moscow exhibition of avant-garde artists. This exposure brought recognition, and a number of wealthy collectors began buying his art. He also began illustrating a number of Yiddish books with ink drawings. He illustrated I. L. Peretz's The Magician in 1917. Chagall was 30 years old and had begun to become well known. Famine spread after the war ended in 1918. The Chagalls found it necessary to move to a smaller, less expensive, town near Moscow, although he now had to commute to Moscow daily using crowded trains. In 1921, he worked as an art teacher along with his friend sculptor Isaac Itkind in a Jewish boys' shelter in suburban Malakhovka, which housed orphaned refugees from Ukrainian pogroms. While there, he created a series of illustrations for the Yiddish poetry cycle Grief written by David Hofstein, who was another teacher at the Malakhovka shelter. After spending the years between 1921 and 1922 living in primitive conditions, he decided to go back to France so that he could develop his art in a more comfortable country. Numerous other artists, writers, and musicians were also planning to relocate to the West.
Marc Chagall left Moscow in 1923 to return to France. On his way he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. Nonetheless, after returning to Paris he again "rediscovered the free expansion and fulfillment which were so essential to him", writes Lewis. With all his early works now lost, he began trying to paint from his memories of his earliest years in Vitebsk with sketches and oil paintings. 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 La Fontaine's Fables. These illustrations would eventually come to represent his finest printmaking efforts. In 1924, he travelled to Brittany and painted La fenêtre sur l'Île-de-Bréhat. 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. He instead stayed in France, "painting ceaselessly", notes Baal-Teshuva. 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.
Marc Chagall returning from one of his trips was commissioned by Vollard to illustrate the Old Testament. Although he could have completed the project in France, he used the assignment as an excuse to travel to Israel to experience for himself the Holy Land. He arrived there in February 1931 and ended up staying for two months. Chagall felt at home in Israel where many people spoke Yiddish and Russian. According to Jacob Baal-Teshuva, "he was impressed by the pioneering spirit of the people in the kibbutzim and deeply moved by the Wailing Wall and the other holy places. Chagall saw the Old Testament as a "human story, ... not with the creation of the cosmos but with the creation of man, and his figures of angels are rhymed or combined with human ones", writes Wullschlager. She points out that in one of his early Bible images, "Abraham and the Three Angels", the angels sit and chat over a glass of wine "as if they have just dropped by for dinner". He returned to France and by the next year had completed 32 out of the total of 105 plates. By 1939, at the beginning of World War II, he had finished 66. However, Vollard died that same year. When the series was completed in 1956, it was published by Edition Tériade. Baal-Teshuva writes that "the illustrations were stunning and met with great acclaim. Once again Chagall had shown himself to be one of the 20th century's most important graphic artists".
Beginning during 1937 about twenty thousand works from German museums were confiscated as "degenerate" by a committee directed by Joseph Goebbels. Although the German press had once "swooned over him", the new German authorities now made a mockery of Chagall's art, describing them as "green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air, represent an assault on Western civilization". After Germany invaded and occupied France, the Chagalls naively remained in Vichy France, unaware that French Jews, with the help of the Vichy government, were being collected and sent to German concentration camps, from which few would return. The Vichy collaborationist government, directed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, immediately upon assuming power established a commission to "redefine French citizenship" with the aim of stripping "undesirables", including naturalized citizens, of their French nationality. Chagall had been so involved with his art, that it was not until October 1940, after the Vichy government, at the behest of the Nazi occupying forces, began approving anti-Semitic laws, that he began to understand what was happening. Learning that Jews were being removed from public and academic positions, the Chagalls finally "woke up to the danger they faced". But Wullschlager notes that "by then they were trapped". Their only refuge could be America, but "they could not afford the passage to New York" or the large bond that each immigrant had to provide upon entry to ensure that they would not become a financial burden to the country.
Marc Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize third prize two years before before arriving in the United States in 1941, for "Les Fiancés". After being in America he discovered that he had already achieved "international stature", writes Cogniat, although he felt ill-suited in this new role in a foreign country whose language he could not yet speak. He became a celebrity mostly against his will, feeling lost in the strange surroundings. After a while he began to settle in New York, which was full of writers, painters, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions. He lived at 4 East 74th Street. He spent time visiting galleries and museums, and befriended other artists including Piet Mondrian and André Breton.
Marc Chargall's fellow contemporary artists did not yet understand or even like his art. The Paris School, which was referred to as 'Parisian Surrealism,' meant little to them.Those attitudes would begin to change, however, when Pierre Matisse, the son of recognized French artist Henri Matisse, became his representative and managed Chagall exhibitions in New York and Chicago in 1941. One of the earliest exhibitions included 21 of his masterpieces from 1910 to 1941. On 2 September 1944, Bella died suddenly due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortage of medicine. As a result, he stopped all work for many months, and when he did resume painting his first pictures were concerned with preserving Bella's memory. By 1946, his artwork was becoming more widely recognized. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had a large exhibition representing 40 years of his work which gave visitors one of the first complete impressions of the changing nature of his art over the years. The war had ended and he began making plans to return to Paris.
According to Cogniat, Marc Chagall "found he was even more deeply attached than before, not only to the atmosphere of Paris, but to the city itself, to its houses and its views." He went back for good during the autumn of 1947, where he attended the opening of the exhibition of his works at the Musée National d'Art Moderne. In the years ahead he was able to produce not just paintings and graphic art, but also numerous sculptures and ceramics, including wall tiles, painted vases, plates and jugs. He also began working in larger-scale formats, producing large murals, stained glass windows, mosaics and tapestries.
In 1963, Marc Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera (Palais Garnier), a majestic 19th-century building and national monument. André Malraux, France's Minister of Culture wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist. However, this choice of artist caused controversy: some objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument; others disliked the ceiling of the historic building being painted by a modern artist. Nonetheless, Chagall continued the project, which took the 77-year-old artist a year to complete. The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet and required 440 pounds of paint. It had five sections which were glued to polyester panels and hoisted up to the 70-foot ceiling. The images Chagall painted on the canvas paid tribute to the composers Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berlioz and Ravel, as well as to famous actors and dancers. After the new ceiling was unveiled, "even the bitterest opponents of the commission seemed to fall silent", writes Baal-Teshuva. "Unanimously, the press declared Chagall's new work to be a great contribution to French culture." Malraux later said, "What other living artist could have painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera in the way Chagall did?... He is above all one of the great colorists of our time... many of his canvases and the Opera ceiling represent sublime images that rank among the finest poetry of our time, just as Titian produced the finest poetry of his day."
Marc Chagall died in France in 1985, the last surviving master of European modernism, outliving Joan Miró by two years. He had experienced at first hand the high hopes and crushing disappointments of the Russian revolution, and had witnessed the end of the Pale of Settlement, the near annihilation of European Jewry, and the obliteration of Vitebsk, his home town, where only 118 of a population of 240,000 survived the Second World War." Chagall's final work was a commissioned piece of art for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The maquette painting titled Job had been completed, but Chagall died just before the completion of the tapestry. Yavett Cauquil Pierce was weaving the tapestry under Chagall's supervision and was the last person to work with Chagall. She left Vava and Marc Chagall's home at 4 pm on 28 March after discussing and matching the final colors from the maquette painting for the tapestry.
Marc Chagall's influence is as vast as the number of styles he assimilated to create his work. Although never completely aligning himself with any single movement, he interwove many of the visual elements of Cubism, Fauvism, Symbolism and Surrealism into his lyrically emotional aesthetic of Jewish folklore, dream-like pastorals, and Russian life. In this sense, Chagall's legacy reveals an artistic style that is both entirely his own and a rich amalgam of prevailing Modern art disciplines. Chagall is also, much like Picasso, a prime example of a modern artist who mastered multiple media, including painting in both oil and gouache, watercolor, murals, ceramics, etching, drawing, theater and costume design, and stained-glass work.
A 1928 Marc Chagall oil painting, Les Amoureux, measuring 117.3 x 90.5 cm, depicting Bella Rosenfeld, the artist's first wife and adopted home Paris, sold for $28.5 million (with fees) at Sotheby's New York, 14 November 2017, almost doubling Chagall's 27-year-old $14.85 million auction record. In October 2010, his painting Bestiaire et Musique, depicting a bride and a fiddler floating in a night sky amid circus performers and animals, "was the star lot" at an auction in Hong Kong. When it sold for $4.1 million, it became the most expensive contemporary Western painting ever sold in Asia.