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Who is Marc Chagall?

By Caitlin Kenney
Updated May 23, 2024
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Marc Chagall, a major Russian Jewish artist of the twentieth century, achieved great success with several different mediums and styles of art. Chagall is known as a pioneer of modernism, working with symbolism, cubism, fauvism, and eventually surrealism. His long and celebrated career included famous works in painting, stained glass, stage sets, tapestries, and prints. The influences of Chagall’s experience as Russian Jew living and producing art during the Russian Revolution, both World Wars, and many other great events of the twentieth century are evidenced in his work.

Born on 7 July 1887, Chagall was the eldest of nine children in a poor Jewish family in Liozno, near Vitebsk, Russia. He began his studies of art locally in 1906, but in 1907 he moved to St. Petersburg to pursue his career further under the tutelage of Leon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. During this time, Chagall was jailed for not having a permit to reside in the city as a Jewish resident. His Jewish background and happy family life was to inform the nature and subject of Chagall’s artistic work, though he was not a practicing Jew in later years.

Enjoying his early success, Marc Chagall moved to Paris briefly and forged relationships with several other pioneers of the modernist movement, including Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, and Guillaume Apollinaire. During this period, Chagall painted some of his most famous colorful works on Jewish folk life. He then moved back to Russia and married Bella Rosenfeld, who bore him one child, Ida. The couple returned to Paris in 1922, but when World War II broke out, the young Jewish family had to be smuggled out of Europe to the United States, where Chagall lived until four years after his wife’s death. Chagall had one son, David, after his wife’s death and then returned to Europe where he married Valentina (Vava) Brodsky and later died, in 1985.

Marc Chagall is well known for his use of bright, vivid colors and his childhood’s Belorussian village inspiration. He is often regarded as a member of the modernist avante-garde and the popular art movements that came out of Paris before and after World War I. His surrealist works are frequently described as dreamlike, fantastic, and inventive, mixing impressionism and cubism. Chagall completed several stained glass windows and etchings illustrating scenes from the bible, as well as works depicting Jewish subjects, such as “The Praying Jew.” His series, Mein Leben (“My Life”) shows scenes from his personal life and many paintings and prints bring Russian Jewish town scenes to life, such as “I and the Village.”

Chagall’s famous works are proudly displayed in various places across the world. His stained glass windows can be found notably in St. Stephen’s cathedral in Mainz, Germany, the synagogue of the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, and the U.N. public lobby. Marc Chagall also designed tapestries, three of which can be found in the state hall of the Knesset in Israel. Like his tapestries, Chagall’s etchings and ceramics are exceedingly rare and sparsely exhibited. The Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall (Chagall Museum) in Nice, France displays many of his biblical works.

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