Marc Chagall

Marc Zaharovich Chagall was Belarusian artist 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.

Marc Chagall came from a Jewish family. Most of what is known about 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's art can be understood as the response to a situation that has long marked the history of Russian Jews as they were considered outsiders in a frequently hostile society...In Russia at that time, Jewish children were not allowed to attend regular Russian schools or universities. His mother had to offer money to the headmaster so he could attend Russian high school. A turning point of his artistic life came when he began copying images from books and decided he wanted to become an artist. He had noticed the studio of Yehuda (Yuri) Pen, a realist artist who also operated a small drawing school in Vitebsk, which included the future artists El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine.

During this period in Russia, Jews had two basic alternatives for joining the art world: One was to "hide or deny one's Jewish roots". The other alternative—the one that Chagall chose—was "to cherish and publicly express one's Jewish roots" by integrating them into his art. In 1906, he moved to St. Petersburg which was then the capital of Russia and the center of the country's artistic life with its famous art schools. He enrolled in a prestigious art school. By 1907, he had begun painting naturalistic self-portraits and landscapes. Between 1908 to 1910, Chagall was a student of Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. While in St. Petersburg, he discovered experimental theater and the work of such artists as Paul Gauguin.

In 1910, Chagall relocated to Paris to develop his artistic style at the time where Cubism was the dominant art form, and French art was still dominated by the materialistic outlook of the 19th century. His first recognition came not from other painters but from poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. He therefore developed friendships with Guillaume Apollinaire and other avant-garde luminaries such as Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger. In Paris, he enrolled at Académie de La Palette, an avant-garde school of art. He would spend his free hours visiting galleries and salons. It was in Paris that he learned the technique of gouache.

Everything about the French capital excited him. 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 émigrés from the Russian Empire. 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 majority of his scenes of life in Vitebsk were painted while living in Paris, in a sense they were dreams. His animal/human hybrids and airborne phantoms would later become a formative influence on Surrealism. 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.

A year after the First World War began, closing the Russian border, he succeeded to marry Bella Rosenfeld a girl he met in St Petersburg and they had their first child, Ida. The October Revolution of 1917 was a dangerous time for Chagall although it also offered opportunity. By then he was one of the Russia's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, which enjoyed special privileges and prestige as the "aesthetic arm of the revolution". In 1915, Chagall moved to Moscow and began exhibiting his work. 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. He was offered a job as stage designer for the newly formed State Jewish Chamber Theater. Famine spread after the war ended in 1918. 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. He applied for an exit visa and while waiting for its uncertain approval, wrote his autobiography, My Life.

In 1923, Chagall left Moscow to return to France. On his way he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there for an exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. 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. These illustrations would eventually come to represent his finest printmaking efforts. By 1926 he had his first exhibition in the United States. Vollard commissioned him to illustrate the Old Testament. He used the assignment as an excuse to travel to Palestine to experience for himself the Holy Land.

After Germany invaded and occupied France, the Chagalls naively remained in Vichy France. 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. Chagall was saved by having his name added to the list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate. Chagall and Bella arrived in New York on 23 June 1941, which was the next day after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

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 spent time visiting galleries and museums, and befriended other artists including Piet Mondrian and André Breton. Pierre Matisse, the son of recognized French artist Henri Matisse , became his representative and managed Chagall exhibitions in New York and Chicago in 1941.

In 1944, Bella died suddenly. As a result, he stopped all work for many months. Later he met Virginia Haggard, their relationship endured seven years. They had a child together. By 1946, his artwork was becoming more widely recognized. The war had ended and he began making plans to return to Paris, then moved to Côte d'Azur which by that time had become somewhat of an "artistic centre". In April 1952, Virginia Haggard left Chagall but soon he married Valentina Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background. In the years ahead he was able to produce paintings, graphic art and numerous sculptures and ceramics. He also began working in larger-scale formats, producing large murals, stained glass windows, mosaics and tapestries. One of Chagall's major contributions to art has been his work with stained glass. In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a majestic 19th-century building and national monument. Amongst Chagall's last works was a commissioned piece of art for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Chagall continued working right up until the night before his death.

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