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Marc Chagall – Painting a Lost Past

Nearly every Marc Chagall painting capture his feelings of deep yearning for his family and the rich Jewish life of the village from his childhood. Chagall’s paintings are bright and colorful and often portray the Jewish village life in a dreamlike & whimsical style. His longing, love and connection to his family and childhood life is so apparent throughout his entire life.

Marc Chagall Painting - La Pluie - The Rain 1911
Chagall Painting – Scenes of Vitebsk – La Pluie [Public Domain]

Vitebsk Belarus – Chagall’s Religous Jewish Life

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Russiav (now Belarus) and grew up in a vibrant Jewish community. His family was poor and very religious. Chagall was the eldest of nine children. He studied first in a Jewish religious school and then later moved to a secular Russian school. It was here in the Russian school that Chagall discovered art and displayed talent.

His parents expect from him to work in the small family business and help bring an additional income. However, Chagall has other ideas and only wants to paint. His father is against this absurd idea, but his mother relents and enables her son to follow his dream. Chagall moves to Saint Petersburg in 1907 to study art.

Chagall Painting -  Window Vitebsk 1908
Marc Chagall Painting – Window Vitebsk 1908 [public collection]

In Saint Petersburg, he meets Bella Rosenfeld who later will become his first wife and mother of his daughter.

Eventually Chagall wants to discover more.. he moves on…

Chagall moves to the Mecca of Art – Paris

“The soil that nurtured the roots of my art was the city of Vitebsk, but my painting needed Paris, as a tree needs water not to dry”

Marc Chagall quotes

Between the years 1910 to 1914, Chagall lives in Paris, the art epicenter of Europe. In Paris he soaks up the array of emerging art movements such as cubism, surrealism, and fauvism art.

During these years in Paris, he is so broke that he often lives off a meager half a herring a day, and paints in the nude so as not to destroy his clothes!!

Before the start of World War I, Chagall lands a solo exhibition at the Sturm Gallery in Berlin. His paintings are predominantly of Jewish themes and the exhibition is successful. However, World War I breaks out soon after, and Chagall is never able to retrieve these paintings…..

Chagall Painting -  Over The Town 1918
Captures the scenery of Vitebsk, Russia
Marc Chagall Painting – Over The Town 1918 [Public Domain]

A Brief Return to Bolshevik Russia

During World War 1, Chagall moves back to Russia. He openly supports the revolution and takes on the position of Commissar for Fine Arts in Vitebsk. Later he is promoted to Director of the newly established Free Academy of Art.

However, the Bolshevik leaders do not approve of Chagall’s modern style. Rather than relent to the authorities, Chagall leaves Russia and settles back in France in 1922.

Chagall Adopts France as his Permanent Home

Chagall loves France, the culture and the vibrant art scene. He lives in France for the rest of his life, except during WW2 between 1941—1948.  With the help of friends with connections, Chagall and his family manage to escape the Nazis and seek refuge in the United States during the war years. Chagall is devastated. His horror and pain of Nazi Europe can be seen through his paintings. During this period his paintings depict Jewish victims and refugees.

Marc Chagall hosts an exhibition of his work at MoMA in 1946 in New York City. He he is highly praised by one art critic, who writes:

“He is a hero who had not only eluded the Nazis but has triumphed over them by painting the Jewish world they had thought to destroy.”

Marc Chagall Painting - I and The Village 1911
Marc Chagall Painting – I and The Village 1911 [Public Domain]

Chagall also paints themes relating to the Bible. In fact, he creates a series of over 100 etchings illustrating the Bible, many of which include Jewish folklore elements and religious themes from the village life in Vitebsk.

Chagall Gains Recognition & Commissions from ALL Over the World

Chagall not only paints but expands his artistic repertoire to include ceramics, mosaics, tapestries and stained glass windows. Some notable and famous artworks include:

Chagall stained glass windows at a Jerusalem Haddassah hospital
Photo by Josh Krancer(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Greatest Prize of All – Chagall Exhibits in the Louvre During His Lifetime

Unlike many other artists, Marc Chagall receives many prizes during his lifetime. He is also one of very few artists who exhibits in the Louvre during his lifetime.

“If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing” Marc Chagall Quotes

Chagall’s Final Decades in a Small Village in Southern France

Chagall lives the later years of his life in Southern France in a small town called Saint Paul de Vence. He dies at the age of 97 on March 28, 1985 and is buried in a small cemetery.

Bridges over the Seine - Marc Chagall Painting
Bridges over the Seine – Marc Chagall Painting 1954

Some funny stories about Chagall:

Chagall’s childhood shyness stayed with him throughout his life. He had little interest in fame and avoided crowds. If someone asked him if he was Chagall, the famous painter, he would mischievously point to somebody else and say “Maybe that’s him.”

Chagall & Picasso – Friends & Rivals

Chagall and Picasso were both friends and rivals. Both were successful modern artists in France.

Chagall jokes: “What a genius, that Picasso, it’s a pity he doesn’t paint.”

And Picasso replies: I don’t know where he gets those images. He must have an angels in his head.”

Photo of Pablo Picasso & Marc Chagall
Two Legends in the art world – Pablo Picasso & Marc Chagall

Legacy: Marc Chagall-Painting a Lost World

Marc Chagall left Belarus, in 1922. Although he spent most of his adult life in France, his childhood village and the teeming Jewish life of Belarus were a significant subject of his paintings throughout his life. He never stopped longing for this lost world. Chagall’s painting kept his memories alive.

“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” Marc Chagall Quotes

A Street in Vitebsk - Marc Chagall Painting
A Street in Vitebsk – Marc Chagall Painting

Sadly, all that remains of Chagall’s neighborhood in Vitebsk, is the artist’s small childhood home, now a museum bearing witness to a teeming Jewish life of the past. Not far away and across the river, is the Chagall Arts Center which showcases a collection of Chagall’s artworks, donated by Chagall’s friends & family.

It took Russia nearly five decades to honor Chagall’s legacy and his Russian roots. For a long time, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia listed Chagall as a “French painter and graphic artist.”

However in 1987, 100 years after Chagall’s birth and when Russia was opening up to the Western world by glasnost, a prominent Moscow art museum celebrated Chagall with a major exhibition.

Marc Chagall left behind over 1200 artworks, scattered all across the globe.

Chagall Stained-glass Windows
Marc Chagall Stained-glass Windows

Where to See Chagall’s Art

Palais Garnier – The Famous Paris Opera House

Go visit the Palais Garnier. Directly in the centre of the ceiling, surrounding an opulent chandelier are splashes of red, green, yellow and blue. Marc Chagall paints 2,400 square feet of frescoes, paying homage to 14 opera composers of opera.

The project is even more amazing given that Chagall was 77 years old when he painted the ceiling. Chagall understood that this project would enable him to leave a significant mark on his beloved Paris and he decided to decline a salary!! For guided tours of the gorgeous Palais Garnier, press here

Chagall's Ceiling - Paris Opera House
Chagall’s Ceiling – Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier)
Photo by sarahtarno (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Paris Pompidou Center

The Pompidou Center showcases an impressive number of Chagall paintings. Many of these paintings show the scenes of his childhood years in Vitebsk. The paintings span his long and impressive painting career, from his early days in Paris until he later years in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in Southern France.

This wonderful art museum is located in the fourth arrondissement, close to the trendy Marais district. Press here for more information.

Musée National Marc Chagall – Nice

If you are a Chagall fan, then a visit to the Musée National Marc Chagall is a MUST The museum exhibits the largest collection of Chagall’s artworks in the world. The museum contains a diverse array of Chagall’s art including, sketches, stained-glass windows, mosaics, sculptures and enormous paintings. In particular, the museum displays Chagall’s Bible Illustrations. This stunning series of paintings, taken from famous stories from the Old Testament, also reflect Chagall’s Jewish heritage.

While strolling the museum, you will enjoy the spiritual, religious and creative life journey of Marc Chagall. For more information, press here.

Marc Chagall Painting - Moses receiving the Tablets of Law
Marc Chagall Painting – Moses receiving the Tablets of Law

See below for more articles about the incredible Marc Chagall, his life, where to see his art and a great historical fiction book about the Chagall family