Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall

"If a symbol should be discovered in a painting of mine, it was not my intention. It is a result I did not seek. It is something that may be found afterwords, and which can be interpreted according to taste." - Marc Chagall

This quote by Marc Chagall nicely captures the artist's essence. Marc Chagall was born Mark Zakharovich Shagal in Vitebsk, Belarus on July 7, 1887. From his birth until his death, March 28, 1985 at the age of 98, everything that was happening around him was reflected in his art. He saw the world through a unique perspective and gave license to each individual in his audience to do the same. Chagall's perspective – always a Jewish perspective – and his artistic style changed with the with his environment and world events over the course of his 80 year career. Therefore one cannot characterize Chagall's thousands of works with one artistic style. Rather, Chagall's work can be split into time periods within which a particular style can be recognized.

Mark Chagall grew up in a small town. His childhood was greatly influenced by his family and Jewish community. In 1906 Chagall left the school he attended and began studying painting at Yehuda Pen's school in Vitebsk. Later that same year he decided to move to St. Petersburg, Russia where he failed his first art exam before studying under Leon Bakst for three years.
In 1910 Chagall moved to Paris which was one of the world's major art centers at the time. Here he began to establish himself as a prolific and ultimately influential artist.

"In Paris, it seems to me, I have found everything, but above all, the art of craftsmanship. I owe all that I have achieved to Paris, to France, whose nature, men, the very air, were the true school of my life and art." - Marc Chagall

In Paris, Chagall was exposed to Cubism, a form of art made popular by Picasso and Braque with whom he had made acquaintances. This exposure to Cubism is apparent in many of his early pieces of art, such as I and the Village (1911), The Poet, or Half Past Three (1911-12), and Self-Portrait with Seven Digits(1912-13).
Self-Portrait with Seven Digits
Self-Portrait with Seven Digits

The above is an example of a painting in which Chagall used Cubism. This masterpiece is known as Self-Portrait with Seven Digits, or Autoportrait aux Sept Doigts in French, the language in which it was originally named. Chagall used oil to paint this portrait onto a 128 X 107 centimeter canvas in 1912-13. (The painting is currently housed at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.) This is an example of Cubism because shapes are broken up and put back in a more abstract way. This can clearly be seen on Chagall's face and on his elbow and knee joints. Just like with most classic Cubist paintings, Self-Portrait with Seven Digits has many blotches of color that don't all fit in exactly where they are placed. This painting is also a good example of how much Chagall's paintings were affected by what was happening around him. In the background Chagall drew a window which depicts the Eiffel Tower, the main symbol of Paris where he was living at the time. In a sense the entire portrait reflects what was happening in his life. He was around artists all day so he decided to make a painting of an artist. The many shapes and unusual colors used do not exactly mirror reality as a photograph might. Thus, the viewer must process and think about what he sees and the effect is that the painting feels busy.

In June, 1914 Chagall moved back to Russia and was forced to remain there after Germany declared war on Russia during August. That year, Chagall married Bella Rosenfeld. The Chagalls decided to live in Vitebsk where Marc hoped to avoid the draft. His simple life in Vitebsk affected his style of painting. Instead of depicting the busy city life of Paris his paintings started to depict serene countrysides, domestic life, and views of nature. Some good examples of this new calm style are Window in the Country (1915), The Birthday (1915), and Bella with White Collar (1917). The latter is shown below.
Bella with White Collar
Bella with White Collar

Bella with White Collar is one of the best examples of Chagall's work from this period in Russia. This 149 by 72 centimeter oil on canvas painting not only depicts the quite life around him but it also depicts his wife whom he frequently painted. This painting is a also a good example of how Chagall started to move away from Cubism and started to paint in a more organized and natural style. The light blue and the calm green as well as the beauty of nature and the white collar depict Chagall's calm style at this time.

During this period Chagall also experienced several other major life events. In 1916 the Chagalls' only child, Ida, was born. She added to her father's happy and content feelings of this time and he often depicted her in his paintings. Also, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution when Jews began to receive increased rights in Russian society, Chagall was appointed Commissioner of Art for the Vibtsk region. As Commissioner, Chagall was able to educate and influence the public's appreciation of art and their view of the world. Like the time before in Paris during his early work in Cubism, this was a time for beginnings and openness in art expression.

Although in the first few years after the revolution art and free thinking was endorsed, however soon the Soviets required all media, including art, to reflect Soviet values. Chagall's carefree ideas and non-political paintings were not welcome. Chagall had no choice but to leave Russia. In 1922 Chagall moved to Berlin where he met Herwalth Warden. Chagall had left Warden 150 paintings to sell when he left Paris. Warden had sold them all which now meant that Chagall had money and fame. Later that same year, Chagall moved back to Paris.

During the 1920s and early 1930s Chagall's art had a new stillness which none of his paintings had ever showed before. Chagall described these as the best years of his life. During this period, he created such masterpieces as Peasant Life (1925), a new, calmer version of I and the Village; Bella in Mourillon (1926), Lovers in the Lilacs (1931) and Bouquet de Fleurs (Bouquet of Flowers)(1934).

Bouquet de Fleurs
Bouquet de Fleurs
The flowers in this picture do not appear to be moving, and the colors make the picture appear serene. Flowers, themselves, give a calm feeling, which is reinforced by the calm, still scenes surrounding them. The flowers are bright, and attract all the attention. They stand out from the calm blue of the background, yet do not disturb the peace of the scene.

Things took a turn for the worse in 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany. In 1937, the Nazis seized 59 works by Chagall that were in Germany, and featured them in their infamous exhibit Entartete Kunst, or "Degenerate Art." In 1938, he painted his masterpiece The White Crucifixion.

The White Crucifixion
The White Crucifixion

This 155 x 140 cm oil-on-canvas is currently housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. This busy work tries to show how intimately connected Christianity and Judaism are to each other. Chagall's central theme, his longing for peace, dominates the center of the canvas, while the edges illustrate the terror, destruction and hate against Jews which was intensifying at the time. The White Crucifixion is one of the most powerful condemnations of war, violence and hatred, and yet another example of how Chagall's surroundings dominated his artwork.

In 1940, fearing for his safety, Chagall fled Paris with his family and his paintings for the village of Gordes, in the unoccupied Provence region of France. The Vichy government, which cooperated with the Germans, seized Chagall, but intervention by US diplomats based in Marseilles led to his release and ultimate emigration to the United States with his family in 1941. Once in the United States, the Chagalls settled in New York City.

Chagall lived in the United States for five years, through World War II. Chagall felt a very personal connection to the war, and this is reflected in the very angry-looking paintings of this period. The color red became more prominent in his paintings, as in, for example, The Three Candles (1938-40), The Obsession (1943), Listening to the Cock (1944), and The Wedding (1944).
Listening to the Cock
Listening to the Cock
This is oil on canvas, but a bit smaller than some of the others, at 92.5 x 74.5 cm. It is also housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is a really crazy painting: It shows the mixed up world of war, with parts of all of his previous styles. Everything is mixed around and confused – Cubism is clearly present. To me, this painting looks as though everything is on fire. I could write a whole wiki just on this painting.

In 1944, a more personal tragedy: Bella Chagall died. This greatly affected Marc Chagall's art, which she had influenced very heavily. He was so depressed that for the first time since his childhood, he set aside his art, and did not paint for an entire year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a new love – Virginia Haggard McNeil, whom he met in 1946 – inspired Chagall to resume his work. She returned with him to Paris in 1946, and gave birth to a son, David. One painting to have come from this fresh inspiration was Cow with Parasol (1947). At the same time, Chagall finally finished a master work which he had been working on intermittently for 25 years, The Falling Angel.

The Falling Angel
The Falling Angel

Because this painting had been worked on for over 25 years, many of his different styles and themes can be seen in it. His Jewish themes are here; his "calm blue" and "war red" ideas are both present. The Crucifix theme of The White Crucifixion is here, and so are the village scenes so prominent in much of his work. There is light from many sources, some unexpected (like the cow). This is a massive canvas, a whopping 148 x 189 cm (or nearly 1.5 x 2 meters in oils). This painting is a great example to show how not only Chagall's styles but his themes changed with the times.

In 1950, Chagall moved to the quiet Mediterranean coastal town of St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Two years later, Virginia McNeil left him for another man, not accepting that she would always be his second priority after his art work. Just a couple of months later, he married the evil Valentina Brodsky, whom he nicknamed Vava. Unlike McNeil, Brodsky let Chagall's art be most important, but she took control of the rest of his life. She isolated him from much of the rest of the world, including from Ida, his daughter by Bella; most of his time was spent in the studio working.

As one might expect, such huge changes in his life greatly affected his art. Valentina's background, like Chagall's, was Russian Jewish, but she was a convert to Christianity, and tried to influence Chagall to do the same. She cancelled his subscription to Yiddish publications, and generally isolated him from Judaism. She then took this a step further by encouraging him to work on stained-glass windows in churches and cathedrals. Between 1952 and 1985, Chagall designed windows for many important churches and cathedrals, such as the Metz Cathedral, Zurich Minster, and Rheims Cathedral. Brodsky's efforts failed to Christianize Chagall, however. He frequently put Jewish images and themes in his works, such as the ceiling of the Paris Opera, as if to defy his wife. At the same time, this caused him to start designing stained glass settings for public buildings in Israel, most notably for Hadassah-Ein Kerem Medical Center(link is to a page on the Chagall windows).

Tribe of Benjamin (Hadassah-Ein Kerem Medical Center Synagogue)
Tribe of Benjamin (Hadassah-Ein Kerem Medical Center Synagogue)

There are twelve of these windows in the synagogue at Hadassah, one representing each tribe (counting Levi). (Pictured: Benjamin.) These windows have come to represent Jewish art, as well as the Hadassah Hospital, which is a symbol of Israeli chesed. Indeed, the windows themselves have come to be symbols of Israel in their own right.

Chagall continued to work into his 90's, and while his work was less "charged" by events of the day, it is still evocative. Examples include The Fall of Icarus (1975), The Grand Parade (1979-80), and Couple on a Red Background (1983).

Chagall died in 1985 at the age of 98. Although Chagall always considered himself a Jew, albeit not especially religious, his wife Valentina had him buried in a Catholic cemetary under a cross. Nevertheless, his daughter, Ida, insisted on Kaddish being recited at the grave.

Miscellaneous Facts (from off the top of my head – things I knew before I started this report)

  • Marc Chagall is my second cousin, three times removed.
  • Family history relates that he would often go around his paintings, working from whatever angle happened to be in front of him.
  • Sometimes Chagall would start a painting, and then decide halfway through that he wanted to go in a different direction, and would make the art evolve accordingly.


Chagall said and wrote many quotes that can show his view on his own art, others art, his religious views, and his connection between art and religion better than any wiki written by anyone can portray.

  • "All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
  • "Great art picks up where nature ends."
  • "I adore the theater and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love. I will give all my soul to prove this once more."
  • "I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment."
  • "If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing."
  • "In our life there is a single color, as on an artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love."
  • "Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love."
  • "The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep."
  • "The fingers must be educated, the thumb is born knowing."
  • "When I am finishing a picture, I hold some God-made object up to it - a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree or my hand - as a final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there's a clash between the two, it's bad art."
  • "Work isn't to make money; you work to justify life."


(I am sorry for the improperly formatted bibliographies.)