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Marc Chagall: Biography, Paintings & Artwork

Instructor: Amber Chiozza

Amber has taught Art History, Humanities, and Art Appreciation, and has a master's degree in Book Arts and Printmaking.

Marc Chagall was a Jewish Russian artist who worked during the 20th century and was known for his abstracted, colorful figures and landscapes. In this lesson, you'll examine his life and works and learn how to identify his unique style.

Chagall and the Modernist Style

The artist Marc Chagall was definitely one of a kind. He maintained a unique style, using stories from Russian folktales and from Christian and Jewish texts to create joyful works with blazing color. He did not belong to any specific style or movement in the 20th century, though he was heavily influenced by other artists. In this lesson, you'll read about Chagall's life and examine some of his works of art.

Early Life

Born in 1887 in Liozna, Belarus, Chagall was the oldest of nine children in a strongly Jewish family. Belarus was part of the Russian Empire at this time, and Jews had limited access to public institutions such as schools. His mother was determined for him to get the best, though, and she bribed his way into a high school. It was here that Chagall was introduced to art, though his family disapproved. Still, Chagall was determined, and he sought instruction from a portrait painter in a nearby town.

Chagall realized early on that portrait painting was not his style, and he moved to St. Petersburg, the center of culture in Russia at that time, and he attended Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. Here he began to cultivate much of his unique style, particularly his consistent use of Jewish imagery in his work.

Marc Chagall. The Green Donkey. 1911.
Marc Chagall. Green Donkey. 1911

In 1910, Marc Chagall moved to Paris, considered the center of the modern art movement during that time. Here, he discovered new ideas and new artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. He borrowed elements from several of these artists, but the combination gave his own work as abstracted, dream-like look for which he would be known. Being away from home also gave a new set of images to Chagall, who began to use imagery from his hometown to create much as his work (see above). While he found success difficult to acquire in Belarus, he also felt strongly about his birthplace, and this use of personal imagery would follow him throughout his career.

Success and Later Years

Another major influence on Chagall's work was his soon-to-be wife, Bella Rosenfeld. He returned to Belarus in 1914 with the intent of marrying her after finding some success, hoping to bring her back to Paris. Once there, however, he found himself trapped due to World War I. Unable to leave, he still found some renown in Russia itself, and he founded the Vitebsk Arts College, hiring other successful artists to make a strong school. These artists had different plans for the school, however, and after some conflict, Chagall decided to leave the school and move to Moscow.

In Moscow, Chagall continued to find success, dipping into illustrations and stage design for the first time, but because of the newly formed Soviet Union's war-torn economy, he and his wife found it difficult to make ends meet. He applied for a visa to return to France, writing his autobiography, My Life, while waiting for its approval, which he received in 1923.

After continuing his successful art career for several years, he decided to visit Palestine, a trip which inspired a huge series of opaque watercolor pieces known as gouache. While he received a renewed sense of creativity and inspiration here and in France, it would be short-lived with the coming of World War II. Because of his strong Jewish roots, Chagall fled to the United States with his family. The US welcomed him with open arms, and the Museum of Modern Art even hosted a retrospective of his work in 1946.

While Chagall created fewer paintings during this time, he did create costume and set designs for theater. He never felt at home in the US, though. The death of his wife, Bella, only made this worse, causing a break in his work. After the war, Chagall returned to France and continued to work, receiving several commissions, including stained glass works for the United Nations.

Marc Chagall passed away in 1985 at the age of 97 in southeastern France. He left a lasting influence on the art world, continuing to inspire artists and art lovers alike even after his death. Today, he is celebrated as one of the greatest Modern artists, and his works can be seen in many major museums throughout the world.

Major Works

Marc Chagall. I and the Village. 1911.
Marc Chagall. I and the Village. 1911

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