Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was a Jewish expressionist, Surrealist painter, printmaker are artist. An early modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting. His works of art were hated and considered ugly by many people. [Source: Robert Wernick, Smithsonian Magazine, March 1985]

Marc Chagall was born Moishe Segal in 1887 in the Belarussian town of Vitebsk. The Chagalls were Hasidic Jews. Chagall lived in Vitebsk for around 30 years. It is where Chagall learned to draw and paint. As a teenager he painted the city's peasants, cemeteries, vendors and shops.

In Vitebsk, Chagall first fell in love with and married his beloved Bella, who was the floating bride in some of his paintings. They stayed married until 1944. Chagall left Vitebsk in 1910. He returned for a while and served as the city's art commissar and then left for good in 1922, leaving behind his mother and sisters.

Marc Chagall came to Paris in 1910. He wove together memories of his childhood with figures from a Russian folklore using a cubist, Surrealist, modernist style. According to a poll taken by the French ministry of Culture in the 1990s, 36 percent of the people questioned said that Monet was their favorite artists followed by van Gogh (25 percent) and renoir (24 percent). Picasso was the least liked painter (39 percent ranked him as their least favorite) along with avant-guard painters like Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall.

Chagall's Life

Chagall was the son of man who worked in a herring warehouse and raised eight children. Vitebsk was an impoverished predominately Jewish village in what is now Belorussia. Vitensk was conservative that Chagall was discouraged from drawing human figures because it broke the Second Commandment. He studied art in St. Petersburg and was detained by authorities after World War I before making his way to Paris.

Chagall settled in Paris in the Beehive, a former slaughter house turned into a home for artists and writers that was also shared by people like Léger, Modigliani and Soutine. Describing sentiments shared by many artists in Paris in the 1910s and 20s, Marc Chagall wrote, "the sun of art then shone only in Paris, each from his corner, we dragged ourselves to Paris. Not to make a career: at that time there was little hope of succeeding. But in order t be able to express ourselves, differently, entirely, and above all to find plastic means to externalize what we felt."

Chagall returned to Russia after the Communist Revolution. Filled with revolutionary fervor, he created paintings of peasants marching with red flags, made stage set designs for experimental theaters and was appointed Commissar of Arts at Vitensk. Ultimately the revolution became disillusioned with him and he became disillusioned with the revolution and he returned to Paris in 1923.

Chagall lived to the age of 97. He became a French citizen in 1937; he fled the Nazis, who burned his painting, for New York in 1941. He married again in 1952 and spent a great deal of time traveling, especially to Mexico and Israel. Based in the prices paid for his art between 1970 and 1997, Chagall reached his peak as a painter at age of 29, compared to 26 for Seurat and 67 for Cezanne.

Chagall's Art and Images

Chagall's works had psychedelic dreamlike quality and a childlike spontaneity yet he arranged his subjects with balance, harmony and order. He was one of the few artist whose art could be described as both ugly and decorative.

Chagall often filled his painting with images of a Vitebsk: milking women, barns, chickens, dogs, horses, scythe-carrying peasants, Russian-style streets. He was particularly fond of cows and green faces. Many of Chagall's early paintings were scenes from Vitebsk and its "special sky,” which he filled with flying cows, dancing fiddlers and floating brides. The fiddler on the roof was something he came up with 1908 (it was reportedly inspired by an incident in which his grandfather disappeared and was found on the roof of a house eating carrots).

In addition to painting and printmaking, Chagall designed sets for Stravinsky's “The Firebird”, made the controversial ceiling at the Paris Opera at the request of Andrę Malraux, did giant murals at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, produced stained glass windows at the Gothic Metz cathedral, and did giant Biblical painting for a special museum in Nice. He also made tapestries, ceramics and sculpture.

Describing the ceiling at the Paris Opera, Chagall wrote: "I wanted to reflect, as in a mirror, the clustered dreams, the creations of the actors and musicians, and to keep in mind that down below the colors of the clothing of the audience were moving about. To sing like a bird, without theory or method."

Chagall, Belarus and the Soviet Union

Chagall was not a political man. His art tried to catch the spirit of peasant life which had originally been one of the goals of Communist art. But he didn't like the Soviets. He once painted an image of Lenin standing upside down on one hand. In 1947, he wrote: "Russia is covered with ice, Lenin turned her upside down." In 1944, Chagall wrote in “To My City”, "All these tears I never stopped having doubts: Do you understand me, my city? Do we understand each other? I kissed you with all my paint and brush strokes. And don't tell me now you don’t recognize yourself.

Chagall was regarded as a non person by Soviet authorities. He had three strikes against him: he was a Jew, an emigree and a modernist artist whose style clashed with that of the heroic Socialist realism that characterized art in the Soviet era. Chagall's art was banned. Soviet-era art books that mentioned him at all referred him as a French artist and mocked and criticized him. For many years no Chagall painting hung in any museum in Belarus or Russia. When one of Khrushchev's aides was shown a painting by Chagall of airborne lover his reaction was: "Jews! And what's more they're flying!"

In 1962, Chagall sent a letter to the Vitebsk Museum, offering to donate some of his art. A curator at the museum, Yevgenia Kichina, told the Washington Post she drafted a letter that read: "We said we had set up an art department, and would happy if we could have the Chagall pieces." Kichina then mentioned the letter in passing to a local Communist party member. "He said, 'What — -and you are going to do this on your own, without any permission? How could this even occur to you." The officials decided Vitebsk didn’t want the art. Kichina appealed to another party official. "I asked him why not, he said, 'No, period." Kichina's original letter was never sent. The opportunity passed. Vitebsk never got any art.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Chagall's birth the first major exhibit of his works in the Soviet Union was held at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The exhibition was greeted with controversy ignorance and anti-Semitism. To celebrate the 110th anniversary of Chagall's birth the first major exhibit of his works was held in Vitebsk. One Chagall lover in Vitebsk told AFP, "In Vitebsk, the home of a Jewish, Belarussian intelligentsia, painters and writers have always remembered and honored the name of Chagall despite his rejection by authorities. Today Everyone os proud of him, even his detractors."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.