"Chagall" redirects here. For other uses, see Chagall (disambiguation).
Marc Zakharovich Chagall (shə-GAHL;[nb 1] born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal; 6 July [O.S. 24 June] 1887 – 28 March 1985) was a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. An early modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic format, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.
Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century" (though Chagall saw his work as "not the dream of one people but of all humanity"). According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be "the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists". For decades, he "had also been respected as the world's preeminent Jewish artist". Using the medium of stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, windows for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.
Before World War I, he travelled between Saint Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During this period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his idea of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. He spent the wartime years in Soviet Belarus, becoming one of the country's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, founding the Vitebsk Arts College before leaving again for Paris in 1922.
He had two basic reputations, writes Lewis: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism's "golden age" in Paris, where "he synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, and the influence of Fauvism gave rise to Surrealism". Yet throughout these phases of his style "he remained most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk." "When Matisse dies," Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, "Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is".
Early life and education
Marc Chagall was born Moishe Segal in a Lithuanian Jewish family in Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk (Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire) in 1887.[note] At the time of his birth, Vitebsk's population was about 66,000, with half the population being Jewish. A picturesque city of churches and synagogues, it was called "Russian Toledo", after a cosmopolitan city of the former Spanish Empire. As the city was built mostly of wood, little of it survived years of occupation and destruction during World War II.
Chagall was the eldest of nine children. The family name, Shagal, is a variant of the name Segal, which in a Jewish community was usually borne by a Levitic family. His father, Khatskl (Zachar) Shagal, was employed by a herring merchant, and his mother, Feige-Ite, sold groceries from their home. His father worked hard, carrying heavy barrels but earning only 20 roubles each month (the average wages across the Russian Empire being 13 roubles a month). Chagall would later include fish motifs "out of respect for his father", writes Chagall biographer, Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Chagall wrote of these early years:
Day after day, winter and summer, at six o'clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father's lot... There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands.
One of the main sources of income of the Jewish population of the town was from the manufacture of clothing that was sold throughout Russia. They also made furniture and various agricultural tools. From the late 18th century to the First World War, the Russian government confined Jews to living within the Pale of Settlement, which included modern Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, almost exactly corresponding to the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth recently taken over by Imperial Russia. This caused the creation of Jewish market-villages (shtetls) throughout today's Eastern Europe, with their own markets, schools, hospitals, and other community institutions.:14
Chagall wrote as a boy; "I felt at every step that I was a Jew—people made me feel it". During a pogrom, Chagall wrote that: "The street lamps are out. I feel panicky, especially in front of butchers' windows. There you can see calves that are still alive lying beside the butchers' hatchets and knives". When asked by some pogromniks "Jew or not?", Chagall remembered thinking: "My pockets are empty, my fingers sensitive, my legs weak and they are out for blood. My death would be futile. I so wanted to live". Chagall denied being a Jew, leading the pogromniks to shout "All right! Get along!"
Most of what is known about Chagall's early life has come from his autobiography, My Life. In it, he described the major influence that the culture of Hasidic Judaism had on his life as an artist. Vitebsk itself had been a center of that culture dating from the 1730s with its teachings derived from the Kabbalah. Chagall scholar Susan Tumarkin Goodman describes the links and sources of his art to his early home:
Chagall's art can be understood as the response to a situation that has long marked the history of Russian Jews. Though they were cultural innovators who made important contributions to the broader society, Jews were considered outsiders in a frequently hostile society... Chagall himself was born of a family steeped in religious life; his parents were observant Hasidic Jews who found spiritual satisfaction in a life defined by their faith and organized by prayer.:14
Chagall was friends with Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, and later with Menachem M. Schneerson.
In Russia at that time, Jewish children were not allowed to attend regular Russian schools or universities. Their movement within the city was also restricted. Chagall therefore received his primary education at the local Jewish religious school, where he studied Hebrew and the Bible. At the age of 13, his mother tried to enroll him in a Russian high school, and he recalled, "But in that school, they don't take Jews. Without a moment's hesitation, my courageous mother walks up to a professor." She offered the headmaster 50 roubles to let him attend, which he accepted.
A turning point of his artistic life came when he first noticed a fellow student drawing. Baal-Teshuva writes that for the young Chagall, watching someone draw "was like a vision, a revelation in black and white". Chagall would later say that there was no art of any kind in his family's home and the concept was totally alien to him. When Chagall asked the schoolmate how he learned to draw, his friend replied, "Go and find a book in the library, idiot, choose any picture you like, and just copy it". He soon began copying images from books and found the experience so rewarding he then decided he wanted to become an artist.
He eventually confided to his mother, "I want to be a painter", although she could not yet understand his sudden interest in art or why he would choose a vocation that "seemed so impractical", writes Goodman. The young Chagall explained, "There's a place in town; if I'm admitted and if I complete the course, I'll come out a regular artist. I'd be so happy!" It was 1906, and he had noticed the studio of Yehuda (Yuri) Pen, a realist artist who also operated a small drawing school in Vitebsk, which included the future artists El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine. Due to Chagall's youth and lack of income, Pen offered to teach him free of charge. However, after a few months at the school, Chagall realized that academic portrait painting did not suit his desires.
Goodman notes that during this period in Russia, Jews had two basic alternatives for joining the art world: One was to "hide or deny one's Jewish roots". The other alternative—the one that Chagall chose—was "to cherish and publicly express one's Jewish roots" by integrating them into his art. For Chagall, this was also his means of "self-assertion and an expression of principle.":14
Chagall biographer Franz Meyer, explains that with the connections between his art and early life "the hassidic spirit is still the basis and source of nourishment for his art." Lewis adds, "As cosmopolitan an artist as he would later become, his storehouse of visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and ubiquitous fiddlers... [with] scenes of childhood so indelibly in one's mind and to invest them with an emotional charge so intense that it could only be discharged obliquely through an obsessive repetition of the same cryptic symbols and ideograms... "
Years later, at the age of 57 while living in the United States, Chagall confirmed this when he published an open letter entitled, "To My City Vitebsk":
Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? ... You thought, the boy seeks something, seeks such a special subtlety, that color descending like stars from the sky and landing, bright and transparent, like snow on our roofs. Where did he get it? How would it come to a boy like him? I don't know why he couldn't find it with us, in the city—in his homeland. Maybe the boy is "crazy", but "crazy" for the sake of art. ...You thought: "I can see, I am etched in the boy's heart, but he is still 'flying,' he is still striving to take off, he has 'wind' in his head." ... I did not live with you, but I didn't have one single painting that didn't breathe with your spirit and reflection.
In 1906, he moved to Saint Petersburg which was then the capital of Russia and the center of the country's artistic life with its famous art schools. Since Jews were not permitted into the city without an internal passport, he managed to get a temporary passport from a friend. He enrolled in a prestigious art school and studied there for two years. By 1907, he had begun painting naturalistic self-portraits and landscapes. Chagall was an active member of the irregular freemasonic lodge, the Grand Orient of Russia’s Peoples. He belonged to the "Vitebsk" lodge.
Between 1908 and 1910, Chagall was a student of Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. While in Saint Petersburg, he discovered experimental theater and the work of such artists as Paul Gauguin. Bakst, also Jewish, was a designer of decorative art and was famous as a draftsman designer of stage sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, and helped Chagall by acting as a role model for Jewish success. Bakst moved to Paris a year later. Art historian Raymond Cogniat writes that after living and studying art on his own for four years, "Chagall entered into the mainstream of contemporary art. ...His apprenticeship over, Russia had played a memorable initial role in his life.":30
Chagall stayed in Saint Petersburg until 1910, often visiting Vitebsk where he met Bella Rosenfeld. In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me.":22
In 1910, Chagall relocated to Paris to develop his artistic style. Art historian and curator James Sweeney notes that when Chagall first arrived in Paris, Cubism was the dominant art form, and French art was still dominated by the "materialistic outlook of the 19th century". But Chagall arrived from Russia with "a ripe color gift, a fresh, unashamed response to sentiment, a feeling for simple poetry and a sense of humor", he adds. These notions were alien to Paris at that time, and as a result, his first recognition came not from other painters but from poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire.:7 Art historian Jean Leymarie observes that Chagall began thinking of art as "emerging from the internal being outward, from the seen object to the psychic outpouring", which was the reverse of the Cubist way of creating.
He therefore developed friendships with Guillaume Apollinaire and other avant-garde luminaries such as Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger. Baal-Teshuva writes that "Chagall's dream of Paris, the city of light and above all, of freedom, had come true.":33 His first days were a hardship for the 23-year-old Chagall, who was lonely in the big city and unable to speak French. Some days he "felt like fleeing back to Russia, as he daydreamed while he painted, about the riches of Russian folklore, his Hasidic experiences, his family, and especially Bella".
In Paris, he enrolled at Académie de La Palette, an avant-garde school of art where the painters Jean Metzinger, André Dunoyer de Segonzac and Henri Le Fauconnier taught, and also found work at another academy. He would spend his free hours visiting galleries and salons, especially the Louvre; artists he came to admire included Rembrandt, the Le Nain brothers, Chardin, van Gogh, Renoir, Pissarro, Matisse, Gauguin, Courbet, Millet, Manet, Monet, Delacroix, and others. It was in Paris that he learned the technique of gouache, which he used to paint Belarusian scenes. He also visited Montmartre and the Latin Quarter "and was happy just breathing Parisian air." Baal-Teshuva describes this new phase in Chagall's artistic development:
Chagall was exhilarated, intoxicated, as he strolled through the streets and along the banks of the Seine. Everything about the French capital excited him: the shops, the smell of fresh bread in the morning, the markets with their fresh fruit and vegetables, the wide boulevards, the cafés and restaurants, and above all the Eiffel Tower.
Another completely new world that opened up for him was the kaleidoscope of colours and forms in the works of French artists. Chagall enthusiastically reviewed their many different tendencies, having to rethink his position as an artist and decide what creative avenue he wanted to pursue.:33
During his time in Paris, Chagall was constantly reminded of his home in Vitebsk, as Paris was also home to many painters, writers, poets, composers, dancers, and other émigrés from the Russian Empire. However, "night after night he painted until dawn", only then going to bed for a few hours, and resisted the many temptations of the big city at night.:44 "My homeland exists only in my soul", he once said.:viii He continued painting Jewish motifs and subjects from his memories of Vitebsk, although he included Parisian scenes—- the Eiffel Tower in particular, along with portraits. Many of his works were updated versions of paintings he had made in Russia, transposed into Fauvist or Cubist keys.
Chagall developed a whole repertoire of quirky motifs: ghostly figures floating in the sky, ... the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down. The majority of his scenes of life in Vitebsk were painted while living in Paris, and "in a sense they were dreams", notes Lewis. Their "undertone of yearning and loss", with a detached and abstract appearance, caused Apollinaire to be "struck by this quality", calling them "surnaturel!" His "animal/human hybrids and airborne phantoms" would later become a formative influence on Surrealism. Chagall, however, did not want his work to be associated with any school or movement and considered his own personal language of symbols to be meaningful to himself. But Sweeney notes that others often still associate his work with "illogical and fantastic painting", especially when he uses "curious representational juxtapositions".:10
Sweeney writes that "This is Chagall's contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other". André Breton said that "with him alone, the metaphor made its triumphant return to modern painting".:7
Russia and Soviet Belarus (1914–1922)
Because he missed his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebsk—"He thought about her day and night", writes Baal-Teshuva—and was afraid of losing her, Chagall decided to accept an invitation from a noted art dealer in Berlin to exhibit his work, his intention being to continue on to Belarus, marry Bella, and then return with her to Paris. Chagall took 40 canvases and 160 gouaches, watercolors and drawings to be exhibited. The exhibit, held at Herwarth Walden's Sturm Gallery was a huge success, "The German critics positively sang his praises."
After the exhibit, he continued on to Vitebsk, where he planned to stay only long enough to marry Bella. However, after a few weeks, the First World War began, closing the Russian border for an indefinite period. A year later he married Bella Rosenfeld and they had their first child, Ida. Before the marriage, Chagall had difficulty convincing Bella's parents that he would be a suitable husband for their daughter. They were worried about her marrying a painter from a poor family and wondered how he would support her. Becoming a successful artist now became a goal and inspiration. According to Lewis, "[T]he euphoric paintings of this time, which show the young couple floating balloon-like over Vitebsk—its wooden buildings faceted in the Delaunay manner—are the most lighthearted of his career". His wedding pictures were also a subject he would return to in later years as he thought about this period of his life.:75
In 1915, Chagall began exhibiting his work in Moscow, first exhibiting his works at a well-known salon and in 1916 exhibiting pictures in St. Petersburg. He again showed his art at a Moscow exhibition of avant-garde artists. This exposure brought recognition, and a number of wealthy collectors began buying his art. He also began illustrating a number of Yiddish books with ink drawings. He illustrated I. L. Peretz's The Magician in 1917. Chagall was 30 years old and had begun to become well known.:77
The October Revolution of 1917 was a dangerous time for Chagall although it also offered opportunity. Chagall wrote he came to fear Bolshevik orders pinned on fences, writing: "The factories were stopping. The horizons opened. Space and emptiness. No more bread. The black lettering on the morning posters made me feel sick at heart". Chagall often hungry for days, later remembering watching "a bride, the beggars and the poor wretches weighted down with bundles", leading to conclude that the new regime had turned Russia "upside down the way I turn my pictures". By then he was one of the Russia's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, which enjoyed special privileges and prestige as the "aesthetic arm of the revolution". He was offered a notable position as a commissar of visual arts for the country[clarification needed], but preferred something less political, and instead accepted a job as commissar of arts for Vitebsk. This resulted in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College which, adds Lewis, became the "most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union".
It obtained for its faculty some of the most important artists in the country, such as El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. He also added his first teacher, Yehuda Pen. Chagall tried to create an atmosphere of a collective of independently minded artists, each with their own unique style. However, this would soon prove to be difficult as a few of the key faculty members preferred a Suprematist art of squares and circles, and disapproved of Chagall's attempt at creating "bourgeois individualism". Chagall then resigned as commissar and moved to Moscow.
In Moscow he was offered a job as stage designer for the newly formed State Jewish Chamber Theater. It was set to begin operation in early 1921 with a number of plays by Sholem Aleichem. For its opening he created a number of large background murals using techniques he learned from Bakst, his early teacher. One of the main murals was 9 feet (2.7 m) tall by 24 feet (7.3 m) long and included images of various lively subjects such as dancers, fiddlers, acrobats, and farm animals. One critic at the time called it "Hebrew jazz in paint". Chagall created it as a "storehouse of symbols and devices", notes Lewis. The murals "constituted a landmark" in the history of the theatre, and were forerunners of his later large-scale works, including murals for the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera.:87
Famine spread after the war ended in 1918. The Chagalls found it necessary to move to a smaller, less expensive, town near Moscow, although he now had to commute to Moscow daily using crowded trains. In 1921, he worked as an art teacher in a Jewish boys' shelter in suburban Malakhovka, which housed orphaned refugees from Ukrainian pogroms.:270 While there, he created a series of illustrations for the Yiddish poetry cycle Grief written by David Hofstein, who was another teacher at the Malakhovka shelter.:273
After spending the years between 1921 and 1922 living in primitive conditions, he decided to go back to France so that he could develop his art in a more comfortable country. Numerous other artists, writers, and musicians were also planning to relocate to the West. He applied for an exit visa and while waiting for its uncertain approval, wrote his autobiography, My Life.:121
In 1923, Chagall left Moscow to return to France. On his way he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. Nonetheless, after returning to Paris he again "rediscovered the free expansion and fulfillment which were so essential to him", writes Lewis. With all his early works now lost, he began trying to paint from his memories of his earliest years in Vitebsk with sketches and oil paintings.
He formed a business relationship with French art dealer Ambroise Vollard. This inspired him to begin creating etchings for a series of illustrated books, including Gogol's Dead Souls, the Bible, and the La Fontaine's Fables. These illustrations would eventually come to represent his finest printmaking efforts. In 1924, he travelled to Brittany and painted La fenêtre sur l'Île-de-Bréhat. By 1926 he had his first exhibition in the United States at the Reinhardt gallery of New York which included about 100 works, although he did not travel to the opening. He instead stayed in France, "painting ceaselessly", notes Baal-Teshuva. It was not until 1927 that Chagall made his name in the French art world, when art critic and historian Maurice Raynal awarded him a place in his book Modern French Painters. However, Raynal was still at a loss to accurately describe Chagall to his readers:
Chagall interrogates life in the light of a refined, anxious, childlike sensibility, a slightly romantic temperament ... a blend of sadness and gaiety characteristic of a grave view of life. His imagination, his temperament, no doubt forbid a Latin severity of composition.:314
During this period he traveled throughout France and the Côte d'Azur, where he enjoyed the landscapes, colorful vegetation, the blue Mediterranean Sea, and the mild weather. He made repeated trips to the countryside, taking his sketchbook.:9 He also visited nearby countries and later wrote about the impressions some of those travels left on him:
I should like to recall how advantageous my travels outside France have been for me in an artistic sense—in Holland or in Spain, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, or simply in the south of France. There, in the south, for the first time in my life, I saw that rich greenness—the like of which I had never seen in my own country. In Holland I thought I discovered that familiar and throbbing light, like the light between the late afternoon and dusk. In Italy I found that peace of the museums which the sunlight brought to life. In Spain I was happy to find the inspiration of a mystical, if sometimes cruel, past, to find the song of its sky and of its people. And in the East [Palestine] I found unexpectedly the Bible and a part of my very being.:77
The Bible illustrations
After returning to Paris from one of his trips, Vollard commissioned Chagall to illustrate the Old Testament. Although he could have completed the project in France, he used the assignment as an excuse to travel to Israel to experience for himself the Holy Land. He arrived there in February 1931 and ended up staying for two months. Chagall felt at home in Israel where many people spoke Yiddish and Russian. According to Jacob Baal-Teshuva, "he was impressed by the pioneering spirit of the people in the kibbutzim and deeply moved by the Wailing Wall and the other holy places".:133
Chagall later told a friend that Israel gave him "the most vivid impression he had ever received". Wullschlager notes, however, that whereas Delacroix and Matisse had found inspiration in the exoticism of North Africa, he as a Jew in Israel had different perspective. "What he was really searching for there was not external stimulus but an inner authorization from the land of his ancestors, to plunge into his work on the Bible illustrations".:343 Chagall stated that "In the East I found the Bible and part of my own being."
As a result, he immersed himself in "the history of the Jews, their trials, prophecies, and disasters", notes Wullschlager. She adds that beginning the assignment was an "extraordinary risk" for Chagall, as he had finally become well known as a leading contemporary painter, but would now end his modernist themes and delve into "an ancient past".:350 Between 1931 and 1934 he worked "obsessively" on "The Bible", even going to Amsterdam in order to carefully study the biblical paintings of Rembrandt and El Greco, to see the extremes of religious painting. He walked the streets of the city's Jewish quarter to again feel the earlier atmosphere. He told Franz Meyer:
I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.:350
Chagall saw the Old Testament as a "human story, ... not with the creation of the cosmos but with the creation of man, and his figures of angels are rhymed or combined with human ones", writes Wullschlager. She points out that in one of his early Bible images, "Abraham and the Three Angels", the angels sit and chat over a glass of wine "as if they have just dropped by for dinner".:350
He returned to France and by the next year had completed 32 out of the total of 105 plates. By 1939, at the beginning of World War II, he had finished 66. However, Vollard died that same year. When the series was completed in 1956, it was published by Edition Tériade. Baal-Teshuva writes that "the illustrations were stunning and met with great acclaim. Once again Chagall had shown himself to be one of the 20th century's most important graphic artists".:135 Leymarie has described these drawings by Chagall as "monumental" and,
...full of divine inspiration, which retrace the legendary destiny and the epic history of Israel to Genesis to the Prophets, through the Patriarchs and the Heroes. Each picture becomes one with the event, informing the text with a solemn intimacy unknown since Rembrandt.:ix
Nazi campaigns against modern art
Not long after Chagall began his work on the Bible, Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany. Anti-Semitic laws were being introduced and the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established. Wullschlager describes the early effects on art:
The Nazis had begun their campaign against modernist art as soon as they seized power. Expressionist, cubist, abstract, and surrealist art—anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or difficult to understand—was targeted, from Picasso and Matisse going back to Cézanne and van Gogh; in its place traditional German realism, accessible and open to patriotic interpretation, was extolled.:374
Beginning during 1937 about twenty thousand works from German museums were confiscated as "degenerate" by a committee directed by Joseph Goebbels.:375 Although the German press had once "swooned over him", the new German authorities now made a mockery of Chagall's art, describing them as "green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air ... representing [an] assault on Western civilization".:376
After Germany invaded and occupied France, the Chagalls naively remained in Vichy France, unaware that French Jews, with the help of the Vichy government, were being collected and sent to German concentration camps, from which few would return. The Vichy collaborationist government, directed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, immediately upon assuming power established a commission to "redefine French citizenship" with the aim of stripping "undesirables", including naturalized citizens, of their French nationality. Chagall had been so involved with his art, that it was not until October 1940, after the Vichy government, at the behest of the Nazi occupying forces, began approving anti-Semitic laws, that he began to understand what was happening. Learning that Jews were being removed from public and academic positions, the Chagalls finally "woke up to the danger they faced". But Wullschlager notes that "by then they were trapped".:382 Their only refuge could be America, but "they could not afford the passage to New York" or the large bond that each immigrant had to provide upon entry to ensure that they would not become a financial burden to the country.
Escaping occupied France
According to Wullschlager, "[T]he speed with which France collapsed astonished everyone: the French army, with British support, capitulated even more quickly than Poland had done" a year earlier. "Shock waves crossed the Atlantic... as Paris had until then been equated with civilization throughout the non-Nazi world.":388 Yet the attachment of the Chagalls to France "blinded them to the urgency of the situation.":389 Many other well-known Russian and Jewish artists eventually sought to escape: these included Chaim Soutine, Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Ludwig Fulda, author Victor Serge and prize-winning author Vladimir Nabokov, who although not Jewish himself, was married to a Jewish woman.:1181 Russian author Victor Serge described many of the people living temporarily in Marseille who were waiting to emigrate to America:
Here is a beggar's alley gathering the remnants of revolutions, democracies and crushed intellects... In our ranks are enough doctors, psychologists, engineers, educationalists, poets, painters, writers, musicians, economists and public men to vitalize a whole great country.:392
After prodding by their daughter Ida, who "perceived the need to act fast",:388 and with help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was saved by having his name added to the list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate. Varian Fry, the American journalist, and Hiram Bingham IV, the American Vice-Consul in Marseilles, ran a rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas to the US. Chagall was one of over 2,000 who were rescued by this operation. He left France in May 1941, "when it was almost too late", adds Lewis. Picasso and Matisse were also invited to come to America but they decided to remain in France. Chagall and Bella arrived in New York on 23 June 1941, the day after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.:150 Ida and her husband Michel followed on the notorious refugee ship SS Navemar with a large case of Chagall's work. A chance post-war meeting in a French café between Ida and intelligence analyst Konrad Kellen led to Kellen carrying more paintings on his return to the United States.
United States (1941–1948)
Even before arriving in the United States in 1941, Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize third prize in 1939 for "Les Fiancés". After being in America he discovered that he had already achieved "international stature", writes Cogniat, although he felt ill-suited in this new role in a foreign country whose language he could not yet speak. He became a celebrity mostly against his will, feeling lost in the strange surroundings.:57
After a while he began to settle in New York, which was full of writers, painters, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions. He lived at 4 East 74th Street. He spent time visiting galleries and museums, and befriended other artists including Piet Mondrian and André Breton.:155
Baal-Teshuva writes that Chagall "loved" going to the sections of New York where Jews lived, especially the Lower East Side. There he felt at home, enjoying the Jewish foods and being able to read the Yiddish press, which became his main source of information since he did not yet speak English.
Contemporary artists did not yet understand or even like Chagall's art. According to Baal-Teshuva, "they had little in common with a folkloristic storyteller of Russo-Jewish extraction with a propensity for mysticism." The Paris School, which was referred to as 'Parisian Surrealism,' meant little to them.:155 Those attitudes would begin to change, however, when Pierre Matisse, the son of recognized French artist Henri Matisse, became his representative and managed Chagall exhibitions in New York and Chicago in 1941. One of the earliest exhibitions included 21 of his masterpieces from 1910 to 1941. Art critic Henry McBride wrote about this exhibit for the New York Sun:
Chagall is about as gypsy as they come... these pictures do more for his reputation than anything we have previously seen... His colors sparkle with poetry... his work is authentically Russian as a Volga boatman's song...
Aleko ballet (1942)
He was offered a commission by choreographer Leonid Massine of the Ballet Theatre of New York to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet, Aleko. This ballet would stage the words of Pushkin's verse narrative The Gypsies with the music of Tchaikovsky. While Chagall had done stage settings before while in Russia, this was his first ballet, and it would give him the opportunity to visit Mexico. While there he quickly began to appreciate the "primitive ways and colorful art of the Mexicans," notes Cogniat. He found "something very closely related to his own nature", and did all the color detail for the sets while there. Eventually, he created four large backdrops and had Mexican seamstresses sew the ballet costumes.
When the ballet premiered on 8 September 1942 it was considered a "remarkable success." In the audience were other famous mural painters who came to see Chagall's work, including Diego Rivera and José Orozco. According to Baal-Teshuva, when the final bar of music ended, "there was a tumultuous applause and 19 curtain calls, with Chagall himself being called back onto the stage again and again." The ballet also opened in New York City four weeks later at the Metropolitan Opera and the response was repeated, "again Chagall was the hero of the evening".:158 Art critic Edwin Denby wrote of the opening for the New York Herald Tribune that Chagall's work:
has turned into a dramatized exhibition of giant paintings... It surpasses anything Chagall has done on the easel scale, and it is a breathtaking experience, of a kind one hardly expects in the theatre.
Coming to grips with World War II
After Chagall returned to New York in 1943, however, current events began to interest him more, and this was represented by his art, where he painted subjects including the Crucifixion and scenes of war. He learned that the Germans had destroyed the town where he was raised, Vitebsk, and became greatly distressed.:159 He also learned about the Nazi concentration camps. During a speech in February 1944, he described some of his feelings:
Meanwhile, the enemy jokes, saying that we are a "stupid nation." He thought that when he started slaughtering the Jews, we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of "Christianity" in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent... I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn't concern them.:89
In the same speech he credited Soviet Russia with doing the most to save the Jews:
The Jews will always be grateful to it. What other great country has saved a million and a half Jews from Hitler's hands, and shared its last piece of bread? What country abolished antisemitism? What other country devoted at least a piece of land as an autonomous region for Jews who want to live there? All this, and more, weighs heavily on the scales of history.:89
On 2 September 1944, Bella died suddenly due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortage of medicine. As a result, he stopped all work for many months, and when he did resume painting his first pictures were concerned with preserving Bella's memory. Wullschlager writes of the effect on Chagall: "As news poured in through 1945 of the ongoing Holocaust at Nazi concentration camps, Bella took her place in Chagall's mind with the millions of Jewish victims." He even considered the possibility that their "exile from Europe had sapped her will to live.":419
After a year of living with his daughter Ida and her husband Michel Gordey, he entered into a romance with Virginia Haggard, daughter of diplomat Sir Godfrey Digby Napier Haggard and great-niece of the author Sir Henry Rider Haggard; their relationship endured seven years. They had a child together, David McNeil, born 22 June 1946. Haggard recalled her "seven years of plenty" with Chagall in her book, My Life with Chagall (Robert Hale, 1986).
A few months after the Allies succeeded in liberating Paris from Nazi occupation, with the help of the Allied armies, Chagall published a letter in a Paris weekly, "To the Paris Artists":
In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.:101
By 1946, his artwork was becoming more widely recognized. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had a large exhibition representing 40 years of his work which gave visitors one of the first complete impressions of the changing nature of his art over the years. The war had ended and he began making plans to return to Paris. According to Cogniat, "He found he was even more deeply attached than before, not only to the atmosphere of Paris, but to the city itself, to its houses and its views." Chagall summed up his years living in America:
I lived here in America during the inhuman war in which humanity deserted itself... I have seen the rhythm of life. I have seen America fighting with Allies... the wealth that she has distributed to bring relief to the people who had to suffer the consequences of the war... I like America and the Americans... people there are frank. It is a young country with the qualities and faults of youth. It is a delight to love people like that... Above all I am impressed by the greatness of this country and the freedom that it gives.:170
He went back for good during the autumn of 1947, where he attended the opening of the exhibition of his works at the Musée National d'Art Moderne.
After returning to France he traveled throughout Europe and chose to live in the Côte d'Azur which by that time had become somewhat of an "artistic centre". Matisse lived near Saint-Paul-de-Vence, about seven miles west of Nice, while Picasso lived in Vallauris. Although they lived nearby and sometimes worked together, there was artistic rivalry between them as their work was so distinctly different, and they never became long-term friends. According to Picasso's mistress, Françoise Gilot, Picasso still had a great deal of respect for Chagall, and once told her,
"When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color is... His canvases are really painted, not just tossed together. Some of the last things he's done in Vence convince me that there's never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has."
In April 1952, Virginia Haggard left Chagall for the photographer Charles Leirens; she went on to become a professional photographer herself.
Chagall's daughter Ida married art historian Franz Meyer in January 1952, and feeling that her father missed the companionship of a woman in his home, introduced him to Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background, who had run a successful millinery business in London. She became his secretary, and after a few months agreed to stay only if Chagall married her. The marriage took place in July 1952:183—though six years later, when there was conflict between Ida and Vava, "Marc and Vava divorced and immediately remarried under an agreement more favourable to Vava" (Jean-Paul Crespelle, author of Chagall, l'Amour le Reve et la Vie, quoted in Haggard: My Life with Chagall).
In 1954, he was engaged as set decorator for Robert Helpmann's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Le Coq d'Or at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but he withdrew. The Australian designer Loudon Sainthill was drafted at short notice in his place.
In the years ahead he was able to produce not just paintings and graphic art, but also numerous sculptures and ceramics, including wall tiles, painted vases, plates and jugs. He also began working in larger-scale formats, producing large murals, stained glass windows, mosaics and tapestries.
Ceiling of the Paris Opera (1963)
In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera (Palais Garnier), a majestic 19th-century building and national monument. André Malraux, France's Minister of Culture wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist. However, this choice of artist caused controversy: some objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument; others disliked the ceiling of the historic building being painted by a modern artist. Some magazines wrote condescending articles about Chagall and Malraux, about which Chagall commented to one writer:
They really had it in for me... It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen... work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.:196
A list of artist biographies.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) Italian Renaissance painter, scientist, inventor, and polymath. Da Vinci is one of most famous painters for his iconic Mona Lisa and Last Supper.
Botticelli (1445–1510) Italian, early Renaissance painter. His greatest works include; The Birth of Venus and Primavera.
Michelangelo (1475–1564) Renaissance sculptor, painter and architect. Famous works include the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the statue of David.
Raphael (1483–1520) Italian painter. Raphael, Da Vinci and Michelangelo make up the high Renaissance trinity. Raphael’s works are noted for their clarity and classical portrayal of the neo-platonic ideal of man.
Caravaggio (1571–1610) Italian Baroque painter. Caravaggio painted many portraits noted for their naturalism, highlighted by the innovative use of chiaroscuro (contrast of light and shadow). Notable works include: Calling of Saint Matthew and Conversion of Saint Paul.
Bernini (1598–1680) Italian Baroque sculptor and painter. Bernini is credited with creating the modern Baroque style of sculpture. His most famous commission was St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Piazza San Pietro in front of the Basilica.
Rembrandt (1606–1669) Dutch Master from the Dutch Golden Age. One of the greatest painters, admired for his vivid realism and empathy with the human condition. Rembrandt’s greatest works include Belshazzar’s Feast (1635), The Night Watch, (1642), and Bathsheba at Her Bath, (1654).
Jan Vermeer (1632–1675) Dutch painter, who specialised in genre painting, especially vivid depictions of still life. Notable works include View of Delft (1659-60), The Milkmaid (1658) and Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).
Francisco José de Goya (1746–1828) Spanish romantic painter. Goya combined the classical style of the Old Masters with a new realism, ambiguity and imagination. Notable works include The Disasters Of War, The Nude Maja, and The Clothed Maja.
William Blake (1757–1827) English poet, painter and printmaker. Blake is considered an early romantic poet and painter, but with his very own unique style of drawings.
John M.W. Turner (1775–1851) British landscape artist. Known as the painter of light. Turner was an artistic figure from the Romantic period and one of the precursors of impressionism.
John Constable (1776–1837) English romantic painter. Constable was noted for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale – such as Wivenhoe Park (1816), Dedham Vale (1802) and The Hay Wain (1821) – offering an idealised view of the countryside.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) French romantic painter. Delacroix was influential for pioneering an expressive use of colour, movement and romantic content. He was an influential artist for the later impressionists.
Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) Impressionist and post-impressionist painter. A very influential figure for both impressionists and the new generation of post-impressionist painters.
Édouard Manet (1832–1883) Manet contributed to the schools of Realism and Impressionism – playing a key role in the transformation to impressionism and modern art.
Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) French post-impressionist painter. Cezanne emerged from impressionism, developing a style known as cubism. Notable works include Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier (1893–1894), The Card Players (1890-1895) and The Bathers (1898–1905)
Claude Monet (1840–1926) French impressionist painter. It was Monet’s painting – Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), that led to the title of the Impressionist Movement. Monet painted many open-air scenes, such as his own garden in Giverny.
August Renoir (1841–1919) French painter, one of the early pioneers of Impressionism. Also influenced by Italian renaissance. Renoir’s paintings often celebrated city life, and also feminine sensuality. Notable works include Dance At The Moulin De La Galette, Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880) and Nude (1910).
Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) French post-impressionist painter, sculptor and ceramics maker. Gauguin experimented with many styles including primitivist, and pastoral and created a synthesis style which became a hallmark of modern art.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890). Dutch post-impressionist painter, who spent many years in France. Despite turbulent mental state, Van Gogh produced some of the greatest works of all time – Starry Night, Sunflowers, Bedroom in Arles, Van Gogh’s chair and The Cafe Terrace.
Edvard Munch (1863–1944) Norwegian expressionist and avant-garde painter, whose works were often on highly psychological themes. Painted The Scream (1893).
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Spanish, modern cubist painter. Notable works include: Birds of Peace, Guernica (1937) and The Weeping Woman (1937)
Henry Moore (1898–1986) British sculptor. Best known for his reclining sculptures based on the human form, Moore contributed to a modernist style of sculpture.
Salvador Dali (1904–1989) Spanish surrealist painter, who was an imaginative and innovative artist. His works stretched across many genres, such as surrealism, cubism and dadaism. Notable works include The Persistence of Memory (1931).
David Hockney (1937– ) English modern painter. Contributed to pop art movement of the 1960s.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Artist Biographies”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 23/05/2014. Updated 26 June 2017.
Greatest paintings of all time. Including the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci; Creation of Adam – Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo; and Poppies in a Field – Claude Monet
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