Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Biography

The Russian-born French painter Marc Chagall was born in 1887 to a humble Jewish family in the ghetto of a large town in White Russia. He passed a childhood steeped in Hasidic culture. Very early in life Chagall was encouraged by his mother to follow his vocation after she managed to get him into an art school in St Petersburg.

After completing his studies in St Petersburg, Chagall returned to Vitebsk and became engaged to Bella Rosenfeld. In 1910 he set off for Paris which was regarded as "the Mecca of art." As a tenant at La Ruche, Chagall was in the thick of the artistic community, living alongside both Modigliani and Soutine. During this time Chagall's work was tinged with the influence of Daumier, Jean-François Millet, the Nabis and the Fauves. He was also influenced by Cubism.

Chagall returned to Vitebsk in 1914, where he was caught by the outbreak of the First World War, he married Bella there in 1915. In 1917 he was appointed provincial Commissar for Fine Art and became involved in ambitious projects for a local academy. Two and a half years later he was forced to leave in order to escape the revolutionary dictates of Malevich.

After a stay in Moscow (where he worked in the Jewish theatre) then in Berlin (where he studied the technique of engraving) Chagall returned to Paris in 1923. He illustrated Gogol's Dead Souls, La Fontaine's Fables and the Bible for the publisher Vollard. The French Surrealist Andre Breton admired the 'total lyric explosion' of Chagall's pre-war painting and tried to claim that Chagall was a surrealist, but Chagall himself admitted only to having flirted with Surrealism between 1941 and 1948 during his exile in New York. Indeed, Chagall's emblematic irrationality shook off all outside influences. His compositions were governed largely by colour. Using images from his memory he wove reality and imagination into a single legend, one that was born in Vitebsk and dreamed in Paris.

On his return to France, Chagall discovered ceramics, sculpture and stained glass. He settled in the south of France, first at Vence (1950), then in Saint-Paul-de-Vence (1966). Commissions poured in: for the Assy baptistery in 1957, the cathedrals of Metz (1960) and Rheims (1974), the Hebrew University Medical Centre synagogue in Jerusalem (1960) and the Paris Opéra (1963). A painter-poet celebrated by Apollinaire and Cendrars, Chagall brought back the forgotten dimension of metaphor into French formalism.