The eldest of nine children, Marc Chagall was born Moyshe Segal, in July 1887, in an area of the Russian Empire that’s today part of Belarus. His father, Zachar, hauled barrels for a herring merchant. Although Chagall was exaggerating in his memoir, My Life, when he compared Zachar to a ‘galley slave’, the work was apparently so hard that it made him determined to avoid a similar fate, and to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. ‘My heart used to twist like a Turkish bagel as I saw my father lift those weights,’ Chagall wrote.
In 1906, aged 19, Chagall moved to the Russian capital, St Petersburg, where he attended art school. His home town became the main source of inspiration for his paintings at this time — as it would be throughout his career, even though he spent most of his life in faraway places. It’s often said that revisiting Vitebsk on canvas offered Chagall a nostalgic retreat into childhood, no matter how harsh the realities of his adult life (one marked, at different times, by war, revolution and flight). The bearded man in Méditation, attired in the long dark coat and Kashkel cap typically worn by the poor Jewish communities in Vitebsk, is a recurrent presence in his paintings, paying tribute to the artist’s beloved homeland and the culture that shaped him.
Chagall’s originality lay in his very personal synthesis of the influences he seized on from all sides. As well as Russian folk art and Orthodox Church icons, he drew on Jewish artistic tradition, too — not to mention contemporary Western work, after he moved to Paris in 1910. The subdued palette of his earlier paintings gave way to passages of strong, pure colour inspired by the Fauves. Used for emotional and/or mystical effect, intense colour would become a feature of Chagall’s art thereafter. In Les Deux Ânes au Soleil, a street scene from Vitebsk is bathed in a haze of rich blue, a characteristic of many of Chagall’s works, imbuing the image with a fantastical atmosphere.
Upon moving to Paris, the artist changed his name to the French-sounding Marc Chagall. Paris was also where he met Pablo Picasso. Never one to lavish praise on a rival unduly, the Spaniard said of the Russian, ‘I don’t know where he gets those images from; he must have an angel in his head.’ For a while, Chagall dabbled with Cubism, but this was a short-lived phase — he found Cubism too rational and geometric, insisting he didn’t care for its ‘fill of square pears on triangular tables’. In later life, from the 1950s onwards, he and Picasso would live near each other on the French Riviera. Chagall cherished his adopted home for the phenomenon he called lumière-liberté, or the ‘light of freedom’, and nowhere was the inspiration of lumière-liberté more intensely felt than in the south of France, where he always kept vases of flowers in his studio. The artist celebrated lumière-liberté as a joyous renewal of creative possibilities in a series of sumptuous floral paintings, a subject to which he repeatedly returned.
Chagall returned to Russia to see his family and fiancée Bella in 1914. He planned to stay just three months, but the outbreak of World War I meant he had to postpone his return to Western Europe indefinitely. In 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution took place, and Chagall was sympathetic to it. He was now, finally, granted full citizenship rights in his own country — something which, as a Jew under the Tsarist regime, he had been denied. He was even appointed Commissar for Art in Vitebsk, although ideological differences soon led to his resignation. Chagall’s work had taken an increasingly fantastical turn by this point, full of green cows and flying horses, and his opponents complained this had little to do with Marx or Lenin.
Back in Paris in the mid-1920s, Surrealism had become the major intellectual movement in the city, and Chagall’s dreamlike visions from the previous decade were hailed as groundbreaking. According to the Surrealists’ leader, André Breton, ‘no work was ever so resolutely magical’ as Chagall’s. The Russian was officially invited to join the movement, but declined.
Levitating lovers are probably the most recurrent characters in Chagall’s oeuvre. From 1938 onwards, however, he also began to depict the Crucifixion on a regular basis. The date is no coincidence. Nazi deportations of and atrocities against Jews were becoming ever more prevalent. Chagall’s response was to appropriate the Crucifixion from Christian artistic tradition and reconsider its subject as a symbol of Jewish martyrdom instead (Jesus himself, of course, having been a Jew). In White Crucifixion, scenes of suffering and terror — such as the arson attack on a synagogue and desperate escape of a boat full of refugees — surround the central figure of Christ on the cross. Nazi barbarism was clearly the main source of inspiration, but Chagall was also drawing on his experience of anti-Jewish pogroms during his youth in Russia.
France under Vichy rule was a dangerous place for Jews to live, so Chagall and Bella (now his wife) accepted an invitation of sanctuary in the United States. The artistic highlights of his stay included set and costume designs for Léonide Massine’s ballet, Aleko, which premiered to great acclaim in 1942. Bella died from a viral infection two years later. In memoriam, her image would recur — as lover or bride — in several of Chagall’s paintings until his own death in 1985.
Chagall received a retrospective at both New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to France in the late 1940s. His place as one the key figures of 20th-century art was now assured. Chagall started experimenting in an array of new media: tapestry, pottery, mosaics and, most successfully, stained glass. His penchant for large areas of saturated colour made stained glass a logical choice. His most famous commission was the Peace Window, in celestial blue, for the United States Secretariat building in New York.
In 1967, aged 80, Chagall painted two gigantic murals for the lobby of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, at Lincoln Center: The Sources of Music and The Triumph of Music, both measuring 30 ft by 36 ft. In glowing red and yellow, he paid homage to the great composers of the past, most prominently Mozart, who flies like an angel above the Manhattan skyline, embracing characters from his opera, The Magic Flute. Chagall continued to work right up his death in France in 1985, aged 97. Indeed, on the day he passed away, he had been discussing a maquette painting for a tapestry commissioned by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Buried alongside his second wife in the artist’s town of Saint Paul de Vence in Provence, Marc Chagall was the last surviving master of European Modernism.