Marc Chagall: Dreams in Color
I painted pictures in unison with my longstanding dream... It might be possible to say that I was born between heaven and earth and that the world, for me, is an endless space, through which my soul wanders like a little flame.
- Marc Chagall
Revered today as one of the 20th century’s great artistic geniuses, Marc Chagall was, above all, a dreamer. The Russian-born painter is celebrated worldwide for his vibrant, joyous canvases devoted to the greatest of human emotions: hope, friendship, love. His inimitable style in many ways defies categorization, rising above the boundaries of modernism and the avant-garde as potent expressions of his own introspection. Simultaneously universal and intensely personal, Chagall’s poetic and colorful pictorial musings possess a singular beauty and depth that make his works some of the most enduring of the modern era.
Early Life in Russia
Marc Chagall was born in Vitesbk, Russia in 1887, and grew up in the primarily Jewish community of Peskovatiki. He was the eldest of nine children; his father’s work as a clerk and mother’s management of the family grocery store provided a comfortable living for the large family. Due to his Hasidic upbringing, Chagall studied for a number of years at the local Jewish school – his education there in the Old Testament would greatly inform his work throughout his career.
He moved to St. Petersburg in 1907 after a brief period as an apprentice to the photographer A. Meschaninov, a man that Chagall would credit as his first professor. In St. Petersburg, he enrolled in the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting, and was briefly apprenticed to the artist and set designer Leon Baskt. Baskt, also a devout Jew, had an immense influence on the young artist. Not only was he the first to introduce Chagall to the emerging contemporary French art of the Fauves and Henri Matisse, but he also is credited for encouraging Chagall to explore Jewish themes and motifs in his works. His lessons would prove invaluable; as Chagall stated, “Bakst changed my life. I will always remember him.”
A Russian in Paris
After Baskt departed for Paris in 1910, Chagall was quick to follow his first mentor and supporter; he arrived in France in May of 1911. French art and the Parisian avant-garde would have a significant influence on Chagall; though he spoke no French, the budding Cubist movement enthralled the 23-year-old painter. One of his earliest masterworks, Half Past Three (The Poet) (Philadelphia Museum of Art), reveals the influence of the Cubists on the artist, though the composition lacks the formalism of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Even then, Chagall’s were infused with their distinctive emotional vitality.
The years that Chagall spent in Paris were among the most productive and experimental of his life. His circle of influence expanded greatly to include Robert Delauney. Guillaume Apollinaire, and Marcel Duchamp. After joining the artists’ colony La Ruche (The Beehive), he also gained the acquaintance of Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger. An extraordinarily period of experimentation and output, his first years in Paris is considered the most important of his artistic career.
Bringing Together Old Russia and Modern Paris
Inundated with an array of new styles after his move to France, Chagall was careful not to dedicate himself to any one –ism. Rather, he took elements from each to create his own distinctive style. The geometric forms of the Cubists, the emotion of the Symbolists, and the color of the Fauves all came together to form a style that defied definition. This unique approach ensured Chagall maintained his freedom expression, and it proved to be the perfect avenue for Chagall to make manifest his innermost thoughts and memories. Combined with symbols and images from the Russia of his childhood, it led to the highly personal, yet universally relatable works for which Chagall is renowned.
Russia: In Love and War
During one of his few visits to Russia in this period, Chagall fell in love with Bella Rosenfeld; the couple married in 1915, though their plans to return to Paris were thwarted by the First World War. Chagall’s short visit home stretched to eight years as he and his new wife waited for political tensions to dissipate. During this period, he was appointed the Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk, a highly political teaching position that clashed with his more liberal leanings. While he did exhibit a handful of works during this period, his output was largely limited to works of Bella, such as The Promenade (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) of 1917/18. Her visage would grace numerous Chagall canvases after their marriage until her death in 1944.
Return to Paris and Beyond
Chagall and Bella were eventually able to return to Paris in 1923. Upon his arrival, Chagall found that his reputation had earned a significant boost in modern art circles during his absence. Most notably, he began a friendship with the well-known art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned a number of etchings for a new edition of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. His newfound success and prestige allowed him to travel extensively throughout Europe in the 1930s, as well as Egypt, Syria and Palestine.
World War II brought another interruption to the life of Chagall and his family, who were forced to flee to the United States in 1941. During his years in New York City, he became active in the theatre community, designing sets and costumes for Léonide Massine’s ballet Aleko. The work was highly acclaimed at the time, though Chagall’s own life was in turmoil. His beloved wife, Bella, died from a viral infection, and his childhood town, Vitebsk, had been razed during the German invasion.
The grief-stricken artist returned to Paris in 1947, though his artistic vision never fully recovered from the devastation of the previous years. Still, when Chagall died at the old age of 98 in 1985, he was heralded as one of the most important artists of his era. His lyrical, dream-like canvases are among the most recognizable of our time – and among the most loved. “I have always painted pictures,” said Chagall, “where human love floods my colors.”