Marc Chagall was one of the most important painters of the 20th century. In his pictorial worlds, he created a fantastic, timeless mysticism full of poetry and legends. Recurring motifs include lovers, the moon and traditions from Judaism. His work is regarded as unbroken until his old age.
Early years, education and World War I
On July 7, 1887, Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk in present-day Belarus, the eldest of nine children in a Jewish family. After graduating from municipal school, he attended the Swansewa School of Art in St. Petersburg from 1908 to 1910 directed by Léon Bakst.
During a study visit to Paris in 1910, he attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Académie de la Palette and moved into the artist's studio La Ruche. There he made the acquaintance of Fernand Léger, Amadeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and others as well as learning about the avant-garde and new art movements, from which he was influenced in his work. He participated in exhibitions, including the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d`Automne. Through the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Chagall met Herwarth Walden, who opened Chagall's first solo exhibition in his Berlin gallery "Der Sturm" in 1914. More than 200 works by the artist were shown.
After a short stay in Vitebsk, Marc Chagall was unexpectedly caught up by the First World War in 1914 and remained in the city for the time being. In 1915, he married Bella Rosenfeld and the couple moved to St. Petersburg. A year later, their daughter Ida was born.
After the October Revolution of 1917, Chagall, as a Jew, was now recognized as a full citizen of the country, and his friendship with the Minister of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, led to his appointment as Commissar of Art. In this position, he founded his own art academy in Vitebsk in 1919, to which he appointed El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich as teachers. In the same year he participated in the first official exhibition of revolutionary art in the former Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and the government purchased 12 works from him.
In 1920, he moved to Moscow and left his position at the Art Academy. There he furnished the Jewish Theater with murals and costumes. In 1921 he also worked as a drawing teacher in the Malakhovka war orphan colony near Moscow and wrote his biography "My Life".
In order to escape the noticeably increasing reactionary climate in Russia, the family moved first to Berlin in 1922 and then to Paris a year later. During this time, he produced his first prints, which were published in a first portfolio of 20 etchings by Paul Cassirer.
The Paris-based art dealer Ambroise Vollard introduced him to the idea of book illustration, whereupon Chagall illustrated Gogol's "Dead Souls" with etchings. In 1924, the first retrospective of Marc Chagall's work was held at the Barbazanges-Hodebert Gallery. The family spends the summer in the Bretagne. Further commissions from Vollard follow, including for Oscar La Fontaine's "Fables" (1925), a "Circus Portfolio" (1927), and finally for the Bible in 1930. Between 1930 and 1937 Chagall made several trips abroad, including to Palestine, Spain, Poland and Italy. In 1933 a large retrospective opened in his honor at the Kunsthalle Basel. After several applications, the artist receives French citizenship in 1937. The German National Socialists declare his artistic work "degenerate".
Second World War and post-war years
When World War II broke out, the family first moved to the Loire and then to Provence in 1940. Emigration to the USA followed in 1941. There, the artist received commissions for costumes and stage sets for the New York Ballet Theater. On September 2nd, his wife Bella passed away after a short illness, throwing the artist into a deep depression and creative crisis. It was not until 1945 that he received a major commission, the set for Igor Stravinsky's ballet "The Firebird". He formed a relationship with his housekeeper Virgina Haggard McNeil, who became his partner over the next seven years and gave birth to their son David in 1946. That year, major retrospectives of the artist's work were held at the MoMa in New York and in Chicago. Two years later, the artist and his partner returned to France and moved into a house in Paris. At the 25th Venice Biennale, he was given the 1st prize for graphic art and the lithographs "Arabian Nights" were published.
Marc Chagall moved to the south of France for good in 1950. Another retrospective was held at the Kunsthaus Zürich. Shortly after separating from Virgina McNeil, the artist married his Russian housekeeper Valentine (Vava) Brodsky in 1952. Tériade commissioned him to illustrate "Daphnis and Chloe".
While 130 works by Chagall were shown in the Kunsthalle Bern, Eberhard W. Kornfeld organized the first exhibition of graphic art in his gallery in 1956. In 1958, the ballet "Daphnis and Chloe" was set to music by Maurice Ravel. At the same time, Chagall designed stained-glass windows for the cathedral in Metz. This was done without remuneration, as Chagall wanted to thank the city of Metz for protecting Jewish inhabitants during the Second World War.
In 1966, Chagall moved to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where he had the villa La Colline built. Numerous international commissions for stained-glass windows, wall decorations for cultural and other public buildings and many decorations for theaters and operas followed in the 1960s. In 1970, the important exhibition "Hommage à Chagall" opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. Three years later, the "Musée National du Message Biblique Marc Chagall" was inaugurated in Nice. In 1977, Marc Chagall was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor by the French President.
On March 28, 1985, Marc Chagall died at the age of 97 on his estate in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.