Marc Chagall

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Marc Chagall as photographed in 1941 by Carl Van Vechten.
Marc Chagall as photographed in 1941 by Carl Van Vechten.
Marc Chagall as photographed by George Platt Lynes.
Marc Chagall as photographed by George Platt Lynes.

Marc Chagall (July 7, 1887March 28, 1985) was a Jewish Belarusian painter. Among the celebrated painters of the 20th century, he is often associated with the Surrealist movement.



Born Moishe Zakharovich Shagalov (Moishe Segal) in Vitebsk, Belarus (then in the Russian Empire), Chagall was the eldest of eight children in the close-knit Jewish family formed by his father, a herring merchant and his mother, Feiga-Ita. This period of his life, described as happy though impoverished, appears in references throughout Chagall's work.

Beginning to study painting in 1906 under famed local artist Yehuda Pen, Chagall moved to St. Petersburg only a few months later in 1907. There he joined the school of the Society of Art Supporters and studied under Nikolai Roerich, encountering artists of every school and style. In 1908-1910 he studied under Leon Bakst at Zvyagintseva School.

Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911, oil on canvas.
Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911, oil on canvas.

This period was difficult for Chagall — Jewish residents at the time could only live in St. Petersburg with a permit, and he was jailed for a brief time. Chagall remained in St. Petersburg until 1910, and regularly visited home village where in 1909 he met his future wife, Bella Rosenfeld.

After becoming known as an artist, he left St. Petersburg to settle in Paris in order to be near the art community of the Montparnasse district, where he becomes a friend of Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay, and Fernand Léger. In 1914, he returned to Vitebsk and a year later married his fiancé, Bella. World War I erupted while Chagall was in Russia. In 1916, the Chagalls had a daughter, Ida.

Chagall became an active participant in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Soviet Ministry of Culture made him a Commissar of Art for the Vitebsk region, where he founded an art school. He did not fare well politically under the Soviet system. He and his wife moved to Moscow in 1920 and back to Paris in 1923.

With the German occupation of France during World War II, and the deportation of Jews and the Holocaust, the Chagalls fled Paris. He hid at Villa Air-Bel in Marseille and American journalist, Varian Fry assisted his escape from France through Spain and Portugal. In 1941, the Chagalls settled in United States of America.

On September 2, 1944, his beloved Bella, the constant subject of his paintings and companion of his life, died from an illness. Two years later in 1946 he returned to Europe. By 1949 he was working in Provence, France. During these intense years, he rediscovered the vital energy of color, free and vibrant. His works of this period are dedicated to themes inspired by love and the joy of life, with curved, sinuous figures. He also began to work in sculpture, ceramics, and stained glass.

Chagall remarried in 1952 to Valentina Brodsky. He traveled several times to Greece, and in 1957 visited Israel, where in 1960 he created stained glass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah University Clinic in Jerusalem and in 1966, wall art for the new parliament being constructed in that city.

Anyone that has visited Lincoln Center in New York City is familiar with the huge mosaic murals in the lobby of the new Metropolitan Opera House which opened in 1966.

In 1973, the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall (Chagall Museum) opens in Nice, France.

The museum in Vitebsk, which bears his name, was founded in 1997 in the building where his family lived on 29 Pokrovskaia street — though until his death, years before the fall of the Soviet Bloc, he was persona non grata in his homeland. The museum only has copies of his work.

In 2005, musician Tori Amos recorded and released the composition "Garlands," with lyrics inspired by a series of Chagall lithographs.

He died at the age of 97 in Saint-Paul de Vence, France and was buried at Saint-Paul Town Cemetery. His plot is the most westerly aisle upon entering the cemetery

Art of Chagall

Closely associated with the Surrealist movement, Chagall's imaginative works reflect the resonance of fantasy and dreams. He experimented with numerous techniques: gouache, watercolors, pastels, ink, collage, engraving, and lithography. Chagall took inspiration from Russian folk-art and folk-life, and portrayed many Biblical themes reflecting his Jewish heritage. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chagall involved himself in large-scale projects involving public spaces and important civic and religious buildings.

Chagall's works fit into several modern art categories. He took part in the movements of the Paris art world which preceded World War I and was thus involved with avant-garde currents. However, his work always found itself on the margins of these movements and emerging trends, including Cubism and Fauvism. He was closely associated with the Paris School and its expoenents, including Amedeo Modigliani.

His works abound with references to his childhood, yet often neglect some of the turmoil which he experienced. He communicates to those who view his works happiness and optimism by means of highly vivid colors. Chagall often posed himself, sometimes together with his wife, as an observer of the world — a colored world like that seen through a stained-glass window. Some see The White Crucifixion, which abounds in rich, intriguing detail, as a denunciation of the Stalin regime, the Nazi Holocaust, and all oppression of the Jews.

Often used symbols in Chagall's works of art

  • Cow: life par excellence: milk, meat, leather, horn, power.
  • Tree: another life symbol.
  • Cock: fertility, often painted together with lovers.
  • Bosom (often naked): eroticism and fertility of life (Chagall loved and respected women).
  • Fiddler: in Chagall's village Vitebsk the fiddler made music at crosspoints of life (birth, wedding, death).
  • Herring (often also painted as a flying fish): commemorates Chagall's father working in a fish factory
  • Pendulum Clock: time, and modest life (in the time of prosecution at the Loire River the pendulum seems being driven with force into the wooden box of the pendulum clock).
  • Candlestick: two candles symbolize the Shabbat or the Menora (candlestick with seven candles) or the Hanukkah-candlestick, and therefore the life of pious Jews (Chassidim).
  • Windows: Chagall's Love of Freedom.
  • Houses of Vitebsk (often in paintings of his time in Paris): feelings for his homeland
  • Scenes of the Circus: Harmony of Man and Animal, which induces Creativity in Man.
  • Crucifixion of Jesus: the Holocaust, Jews being persecuted by the Nazis.

Chagall and his works today

Today, a Chagall painting will sell for more than $6 million. His work is in the Paris Opera, the First National Bank Plaza of downtown Chicago, Illinois, the Metropolitan Opera, the cathedral of Metz, France, Notre-Dame de Reims, the Fraumünster Cathedral in Zürich, Switzerland, and the Church of St. Stephan in Mainz, Germany.

Chagall quotes

  • "All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
  • "I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment."
  • "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
  • "Will God or someone give me the power to breathe my sigh into my canvases, the sigh of prayer and sadness, the prayer of salvation, of rebirth?"

List of well-known works


  • Aleksandr Kamensky, Marc Chagall, An Artist From Russia, Trilistnik, Moscow, 2005 (In Russian)
  • Aleksandr Kamensky, Chagall: The Russian Years 1907-1922., Rizzoli, NY, 1988 (Abridged version of Marc Chagall, An Artist From Russia)
  • Nikolaj Aaron, Marc Chagall., (rororo-Monographie) Reinbek 2003 (In German)

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