A giant of the Russian and Jewish Avant Garde, Chagall was born one of nine children into dire poverty in Vitebsk in the Pale of Settlement. Through his exceptional talent, however, he found a route to success and riches. While studying, he was taken on free-of-charge at the studio of Yuri Pen in Vitebsk, the city that Chagall said influenced him for the rest of his life. A benefactor then assisted his entry into the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in 1906. >> Read more
A giant of the Russian and Jewish Avant Garde, Chagall was born one of nine children into dire poverty in Vitebsk in the Pale of Settlement. Through his exceptional talent, however, he found a route to success and riches.
While studying, he was taken on free-of-charge at the studio of Yuri Pen in Vitebsk, the city that Chagall said influenced him for the rest of his life. A benefactor then assisted his entry into the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in 1906.
Chagall stayed in St Petersburg until 1910, when he moved to Paris with a ‘a ripe colour gift, a fresh, unashamed response to sentiment, a feeling for simple poetry and a sense of humour’. His first recognition came not from other painters but from poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. Art historian Jean Leymarie describes Chagall’s conception of art as ‘emerging from the internal being outward, from the seen object to the psychic outpouring’ – the reverse of the Cubist way of thinking.
Eventually befriending other avant-garde luminaries such as Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger, Chagall enrolled in the Académie de La Palette, an avant-garde school of art whose teachers included Metzinger, De Segonzac and Le Fauconnier.
During this first stay in Paris, he painted Jewish motifs and subjects from his memories of Vitebsk, and most of his depictions of life in his hometown were painted here. Although he included Parisian scenes – the Eiffel Tower in particular – 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.
Returning in 1914 to Russia – and his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebsk – Chagall began a series of ‘euphoric’ paintings, mainly featuring Bella and Vitebsk: ‘the most lighthearted of his career’. In 1915, he began exhibiting in Moscow and in 1916 in St Petersburg.
In 1917, as a member of the Modernist Avant-Garde – the ‘aesthetic arm of the Revolution’, which enjoyed special privileges and prestige – he accepted a job 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, featuring entire classes and movements founded and run by Malevich, El Lissitsky and others.
Chagall was offered a job in 1921 as stage designer for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, where his work served as a template for later engagements at the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera. In 1923, he left Moscow to return to France, where Ambroise Vollard became his dealer, also commissioning the artist to illustrate the Old Testament. Between 1931 and 1934, Chagall worked ‘obsessively’ on the Bible (‘I did not see the Bible,’ he remarked, ‘I dreamed it.’).
Narrowly avoiding internment by the Nazis, Chagall and his family, with help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, were able to flee to the United States where he ‘discovered’ that he was already famous. In 1944, Bella died suddenly, leaving Chagall distraught. In 1946 he began a relationship with the daughter of H Rider Haggard, the same year in which MOMA in New York held his personal exhibition.
After returning to France in 1948 he travelled throughout Europe, and eventually chose to live on the Côte d’Azur. In April 1952, Virginia Haggard left Chagall, who soon after married Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian-Jewish background.
In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a vast canvas 220 metres square, subsequently hailed as a triumph. In 1973, he travelled to the Soviet Union, his first visit since his departure. The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow marked the occasion with a special exhibition, and Chagall was reunited with two of his sisters, whom he had not seen for more than 50 years.
This versatile artist, who worked in many media, of which stained glass is probably the best known, died in 1985.