10 things to know about Marc Chagall

A look at the life and work of the artist born Moyshe Segal — revered by Picasso and the Surrealists, and a defining figure in the history of European Modernism. Illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

A photograph of the artist Marc Chagall. Photo: © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris

Marc Chagall. Photo: © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris

He described his father as a ‘galley slave’ in the Russian town of Vitebsk

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.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Balayeur, 1912. Gouache and pencil on paper. 11⅛ x 8¾ in (28.2 x 22.1 cm). Sold for €252,000 on 4 April 2023 at Christie’s in Paris

Chagall would leave Vitebsk, but Vitebsk would never leave him

In 1906, aged 19, Chagall moved to what was then 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, attired in the long, dark coat and kashket (cap) typically worn by the poor Jewish communities in Vitebsk, is a recurrent presence in his paintings, paying tribute to the artist’s homeland and the culture that shaped him. 

He absorbed influences from all sides

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 1911. 

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Rencontre multicolore avec le peintre pour le concert, 1974. Gouache, tempera and pen and india ink on paper with lithographic borders. 30¼ x 20⅜ in (76.7 x 51.7 cm). Sold for €352,800 on 6 April 2023 at Christie’s Online

The subdued palette of his earlier paintings gave way to strong, pure colours inspired by the Fauves. Used for emotional and/or mystical effect, intense colour became a feature of Chagall’s art thereafter. 

Chagall savoured France’s ‘light of freedom’

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 it too rational and geometric, commenting that 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 this 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, and flowers were a subject to which he repeatedly returned.

He embraced the Russian Revolution — initially, at least

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.

He was hailed as a godfather and a genius by the Surrealists

Back in Paris, in 1923 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.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), L’Ange devant l’Opéra, 1981. Tempera, gouache, ink, pastel and pencil on paper. 28⅝ x 19⅞ in (72.7 x 50.7 cm). Sold for €327,600 on 6 April 2023 at Christie’s Online

As well as whimsical, Chagall could also be political

Levitating lovers are probably the most frequently repeated characters in Chagall’s oeuvre. From 1937 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). 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.

Chagall spent most of the Second World War in New York

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.

After the Second World War, he was feted by collectors, critics and curators

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 1948. His place as one the key figures of 20th-century art was 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 UN Secretariat building in New York.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Le Cirque sur fond bleu, 1959. Oil and bursh and india ink on canvas. 13 x 9½ in (33 x 24 cm). Sold for €504,000 on 4 April 2023 at Christie’s in Paris

He was the last surviving master of European Modernism

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

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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, Vava, in the artists’ town of Saint Paul de Vence in Provence, Marc Chagall was the last surviving master of European Modernism.

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