Biography of Marc Chagall, Artist of Folklore and Dreams

Green Donkeys and Floating Lovers Illustrate a Colorful Life

An artist with a cubist face stands at his easel and works on a painting of a milkmaid with a cow.
Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, 1912 (Detail) Oil on canvas, 49.6 × 42.3 in (126 x 107.4 cm). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, on loan from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. "Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage" exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Banque d’images, ADAGP/Art Resource, NY

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) emerged from a remote Eastern European village to become one of the most loved artists of the 20th century. Born in a Hasidic Jewish family, he harvested images from folklore and Jewish traditions to inform his art.

During his 97 years, Chagall traveled the world and created at least 10,000 works, including paintings, book illustrations, mosaics, stained-glass, and theater set and costume designs. He won accolades for brilliantly-colored scenes of lovers, fiddlers, and comical animals floating over rooftops. 

Chagall's work has been associated with Primitivism, Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Surrealism, but his style remained deeply personal. Through art, he told his story.

Birth and Childhood

An enormous man with a black coat, a bag, and a cane floats over a snow-covered village with onion-dome churches
Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1914. (Cropped) Oil on canvas, 23.7 x 36.4 in (73 x 92.5 cm). Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Marc Chagall was born on July 7, 1887 in a Hasidic community near Vitebsk, on the northeastern fringe of the Russian Empire, in the state that is now Belarus. His parents named him Moishe (Hebrew for Moses) Shagal, but the spelling took on a French flourish when he lived in Paris.

Stories of Chagall's life are often told with a dramatic flair. In his 1921  autobiography, My Life (view on Amazon), he claimed that he was "born dead." To revive his lifeless body, the distraught family pricked him with needles and dipped him into a trough of water. At that moment, a fire broke out, so they whisked the mother on her mattress to another part of town. To add to the chaos, Chagall's birth year may have been recorded incorrectly. Chagall claimed that he was born in 1889, not 1887 as recorded.

Whether true or imagined, the circumstances of Chagall's birth became a recurrent theme in his paintings. Images of mothers and infants mingled with upside-down houses, tumbling farm animals, fiddlers and acrobats, embracing lovers, raging fires, and religious symbols. One of his earliest works, "Birth" (1911-1912), is a pictorial narrative of his own nativity.

His life nearly lost, Chagall grew up a much-adored son in a family bustling with younger sisters. His father—"always tired, always pensive"—labored in a fish market and wore clothes that “shone with herring brine.” Chagall's mother gave birth to eight children while running a grocery shop.

They lived in a small village, a “sad and gay" cluster of wooden houses tilting in the snow. As in Chagall's painting "Over Vitebsk" (1914), Jewish traditions loomed large. The family belonged to a sect that valued song and dance as the highest form of devotion, but forbade man-made images of God's works. Timid, stuttering, and given to fainting fits, the young Chagall sang and played the violin. He spoke Yiddish at home and attended a primary school for Jewish children.

The government imposed many restrictions on its Jewish population. Chagall was admitted to a State-sponsored secondary school only after his mother paid a bribe. There he learned to speak Russian and wrote poems in the new language. He saw illustrations in Russian magazines and began to imagine what must have seemed a far-fetched dream: life as an artist.

Training and Inspiration

A green face, the head of a cow, and an upside image of a village with field workers
Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911. Oil on canvas, 75.6 in × 59.6 in (192.1 cm × 151.4 cm). This 7 x 9 in reproduction is available from Amazon and other sellers. Mark Chagall Paintings via Amazon.com

Chagall’s decision to become a painter perplexed his pragmatic mother, but she decided that art might be a shtikl gesheft, a viable business. She permitted the teenager to study with Yehuda Pen, a portrait artist who taught drawing and painting to Jewish students in the village. At the same time, she required that Chagall apprentice with a local photographer who would teach him a practical trade.

Chagall hated the tedious job of retouching photographs, and he felt stifled in the art class. His teacher, Yuhunda Pen, was a draughtsman with no interest in modern approaches. Rebelling, Chagall used strange color combinations and defied technical accuracy. In 1906, he left Vitebsk to study art in St. Petersburg.

Scrambling to live on his small allowance, Chagall studied at the acclaimed Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts, and later with Léon Bakst, a painter and theater set designer who taught at the Svanseva School.

Chagall's teachers introduced him to the brilliant colors of Matisse and the Fauves. The young artist also studied Rembrandt and other Old Masters and great post-impressionists like van Gogh and Gauguin. Moreover, while in St. Petersburg Chagall discovered the genre that would become a highlight of his career: theater set and costume design.

Maxim Binaver, an art patron who served on the Russian parliament, admired Chagall's student work. In 1911, Binaver offered the young man funds to travel to Paris, where Jews could enjoy more freedoms.

Although homesick and barely able to speak French, Chagall was determined to expand his world. He adopted the French spelling of his name and settled in La Ruche (The Beehive), a famous artist community near Montparnasse. Studying at the avant-garde Academie La Palette, Chagall met experimental poets like Apollinaire and modernist painters like Modigliani and Delaunay.

Delaunay profoundly influenced Chagall's development. Combining Cubist approaches with personal iconography, Chagall created some of the most memorable paintings of his career. His 6-foot tall "I and the Village" (1911) works with geometric planes while presenting dreamy, upside-down views of Chagall's homeland. "Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers" (1913) fragments the human form yet incorporates romantic scenes of Vitebsk and Paris. Chagall explained, "with these pictures I create my own reality for myself, I recreate my home."

After only a few years in Paris, Chagall had received enough critical acclaim to launch a solo exhibition in Berlin, held in June 1914. From Berlin, he returned to Russia to reunite with the woman who became his wife and muse.

Love and Marriage

Floating man bends his neck to kiss a woman who holds a bouquet of flowers.
Marc Chagall, The Birthday, 1915. Oil on cardboard, 31.7 x 39.2 in (80.5 x 99.5 cm). This 23.5 x 18.5 inch reproduction is available from Amazon and other sellers. Artopweb via Amazon.com

In "The Birthday" (1915), a beau floats above a lovely young woman. As he somersaults to kiss her, she also seems to rise from the ground. The woman was Bella Rosenfeld, the beautiful and educated daughter of a local jeweler. “I had only to open the window of my room and blue air, love and flowers entered with her,” Chagall wrote. 

The couple met in 1909 when Bella was only 14. She was too young for a serious relationship and, furthermore, Chagall had no money. Chagall and Bella became engaged, but waited until 1915 to marry. Their daughter Ida was born the following year.  

Bella wasn't the only woman Chagall loved and painted. During his student days, he was fascinated by Thea Brachmann, who posed for "Red Nude Sitting Up" (1909). Rendered with dark lines and heavy layers of red and rose, Thea's portrait is bold and sensual. In contrast, Chagall's paintings of Bella are lighthearted, fanciful, and romantic.

For more than thirty years, Bella appeared again and again as a symbol of exuberant emotion, buoyant love, and feminine purity. In addition to "The Birthday," Chagall's most popular Bella paintings include "Over the Town" (1913), "The Promenade" (1917), "Lovers in the Lilacs" (1930), "The Three Candles" (1938), and "The Bridal Pair with the Eiffel Tower" (1939). 

Bella ​was much more than a model, however. She loved theater and worked with Chagall on costume designs. She advanced his career, handling business transactions and translating his autobiography. Her own writings chronicled Chagall's work and their life together. 

Bella was only in her forties when she died in 1944. ''All dressed in white or all in black, she has long floated across my canvases, guiding my art,'' Chagall said. ''I finish neither painting nor engraving without asking her 'yes or no.' ''

The Russian Revolution

A jumbled crowd of soldiers, musicians, faarm animals, and towns people wave flags, fight, and crowd around a green faced man seated at a table.
Marc Chagall, La Révolution, 1937, 1958 and 1968. Oil on canvas, 25 x 45.2 in (63.50 x 115 cm). Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Marc and Bella Chagall wanted to settle in Paris after their wedding, but a series of wars made travel impossible. World War I brought poverty, bread riots, fuel shortages, and impassable roads and railways. Russia boiled with brutal revolutions, culminating in the October Revolution of 1917, a civil war between rebel armies and the Bolshevik government.

Chagall welcomed Russia's new regime because it granted Jews full citizenship. The Bolsheviks respected Chagall as an artist and appointed him Commissar for Art in Vitebsk. He founded the Vitebsk Art Academy, organized celebrations for the anniversary of the October Revolution, and designed stage sets for the New State Jewish Theater. His paintings filled a room in the Winter Palace in Leningrad. 

These successes were short-lived. The revolutionaries did not look kindly on Chagall’s fanciful painting style, and he had no taste for the abstract art and Socialist Realism they preferred. In 1920, Chagall resigned his directorship and moved to Moscow.

Famine spread through the country. Chagall worked as a teacher in a colony of war-orphans, painted decorative panels for the State Jewish Chamber Theater, and finally, in 1923, left for Europe with Bella and six-year-old Ida.

Although he completed many paintings in Russia, Chagall felt that the Revolution interrupted his career. "Self-portrait with Palette" (1917) shows the artist in a pose similar to his earlier "Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers." However, in his Russian self-portrait, he holds a menacing red palette that seems to sever his finger. Vitebsk is upended and confined inside a stockade fence. 

Twenty years later, Chagall began "La Révolution" (1937-1968), which depicts the upheaval in Russia as a circus event. Lenin does a comical handstand on a table while chaotic crowds tumble along the periphery. On the left, the crowds wave guns and red flags. On the right, musicians play in a halo of yellow light. A bridal couple floats in the lower corner. Chagall seems to say that love and music will persist even through the brutality of war.

The themes in "La Révolution" are echoed in Chagall's triptych (three-panel) composition, "Resistance, Resurrection, Liberation" (1943). 

World Travels

A red angel falls head-first into a scene with a mother and child, a crucifix, and a rabbi with a Torah
Marc Chagall, The Falling Angel, 1925-1947. Oil on canvas, 58.2 x 74.4 in (148 x 189 cm). Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

When Chagall returned to France in the 1920s, the Surrealism movement was in full swing. The Parisian avant-garde praised the dream-like imagery in Chagall's paintings and embraced him as one of their own. Chagall won important commissions and began to make engravings for Gogol’s Dead Souls (view on Amazon), the Fables of La Fontaine (view on Amazon), and other literary works.

Illustrating the Bible became a twenty-five year project. To explore his Jewish roots, Chagall traveled to the Holy Land in 1931 and began his  first engravings for The Bible: Genesis, Exodus, The Song of Solomon (view on Amazon). By 1952 he had produced 105 images.

Chagall's painting “The Falling Angel” also spanned twenty-five years. The figures of the red angel and the Jew with the Torah scroll were painted in 1922. Over the next two decades he added the mother and child, the candle, and the crucifix. For Chagall, the martyred Christ  represented the persecution of Jews and the violence of mankind. The mother with the infant may have referenced the birth of Christ, and also Chagall's own birth. The clock, the village, and the farm animal with a fiddle paid homage to Chagall's endangered homeland.

As Fascism and Nazism spread through Europe, Chagall became known as a proverbial “wandering Jew,” traveling to Holland, Spain, Poland, Italy, and Brussels. His paintings, gouaches, and etchings won him acclaim, but also made Chagall a target of Nazi forces. Museums were ordered to remove his paintings. Some works were burned and some were featured in an exhibition of “degenerate art,” held in Munich in 1937. 

Exile in America

Drawing of Christ on Cross frowning down at a Nazi who bends over small, struggling figures
Marc Chagall, Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio, 1945. Gouache on heavy paper, 20 x 14 in (50.8 x 35.5 cm). London Jewish Museum of Art. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

World War II began in 1939. Chagall had become a citizen of France and wanted to stay. His daughter Ida (now an adult), begged her parents to leave the country quickly. The Emergency Rescue Committee made arrangements. Chagall and Bella fled to the United States in 1941. 

Marc Chagall never mastered English and he spent much of his time with New York's Yiddish-speaking community. In 1942 he traveled to Mexico to hand-paint the stage sets for Aleko, a ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor. Working with Bella, he also designed costumes that mingled Mexican styles with Russian textile designs.

It wasn’t until 1943 that Chagall learned of the Jewish death camps in Europe. He also received news that soldiers had destroyed his childhood home, Vitebsk. Already shattered with grief, in 1944 he lost Bella to an infection that might have been treated if not for wartime medicine shortages.  

“Everything turned black,” he wrote.

Chagall turned canvases toward the wall and did not paint for nine months. Gradually, he worked on illustrations for Bella’s book The Burning Lights (view on Amazon), in which she told loving stories about life in Vitebsk before the war. In 1945, he completed a series of small gouache illustrations that responded to the Holocaust

“Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” depicts a crucified Jesus soaring over huddled masses. An upside-down clock plunges from the air. A devil-like creature wearing a swastika scuttles in the foreground. 

The Firebird

A woman floats, a prince dances, and a donkey-headed man plays a mandolin against a red background
Marc Chagall, Backdrop for the set of Stravinsky's ballet, The Firebird (Detail). "Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage" exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Parisn. Photo © 2017 Isiz-Manuel Bidermanas

After Bella's death, Ida looked after her father and found a Paris-born English woman to help manage the household. The attendant, Virginia Haggard McNeil, was the educated daughter of a diplomat. Just as Chagall struggled with grief, she grappled with difficulties in her marriage. They began a seven-year love affair. In 1946 the couple bore a son, David McNeil, and settled in the quiet town of High Falls, New York.

During his time with Virginia, jewel-bright colors and lighthearted themes returned to Chagall's work. He plunged into several major projects, most memorably the dynamic sets and costumes for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. Using brilliant fabrics and intricate embroidery, he designed more than 80 costumes that envisioned bird-like creatures. Folkloric scenes unfurled on the backdrop that Chagall painted.

The Firebird was a landmark accomplishment of Chagall's career. His costume and set designs remained in the repertory for twenty years.  Elaborated versions are still used today.

Soon after completing work on The Firebird, Chagall returned to Europe with Virginia, their son, and a daughter from Virginia's marriage. Chagall's work was celebrated at retrospective exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam, London, and Zurich. 

While Chagall enjoyed world-wide acclaim,Virginia grew increasingly  unhappy in her role as wife and hostess. In 1952, she left with the children to launch her own career as a photographer. Years later, Virginia Haggard described the love affair in her short book, My Life with Chagall (view on Amazon). Their son, David McNeil, grew up to become a songwriter in Paris. 

Grand Projects

Round ceiling with paintings of colorful flying figures surrounded by gold molding
Marc Chagall, Ceiling of the Paris Opera (Detail), 1964. Sylvain Sonnet / Getty Images

The night Virginia Haggard left, Chagall's daughter Ida once again came to the rescue. She hired a Russian-born woman named Valentina, or “Vava,” Brodsky to handle household affairs. Within a year, the 65-year-old Chagall and the 40-year-old Vava were married.

For more than thirty years, Vava served as Chagall’s assistant, scheduling exhibitions, negotiating commissions, and managing his finances. Ida complained that Vava isolated him, but Chagall called his new wife "my joy and my delight." In 1966 they built a secluded stone home near Saint-Paul-de Vence, France. 

In her biography, Chagall: Love And Exile (view on Amazon), author Jackie Wullschläger theorized that Chagall depended on women, and with each new lover, his style changed. His "Portrait of Vava" (1966) shows a calm, solid figure. She does not float like Bella, but remains seated with an image of embracing lovers in her lap. The red creature in the background may represent Chagall, who often depicted himself as a donkey or horse.

With Vava handling his affairs, Chagall traveled widely and expanded his repertoire to include ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, mosaics, murals, and stained glass. Some critics felt that the artist had lost focus. The New York Times said that Chagall became a "one-man industry, flooding the market with amiable, middlebrow confections." 

However, Chagall produced some of his largest and most important  projects during his years with Vava. When he was in his seventies, Chagall's accomplishments included stained glass windows for Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center (1960), the ceiling fresco for the Paris Opera House (1963), and the Memorial "Peace Window" for the United Nations Headquarters in New York City (1964). 

Chagall was in his mid-eighties when Chicago installed his massive Four Seasons mosaic around the base of the Chase Tower building. After the mosaic was dedicated in 1974, Chagall continued to modify the design to include changes in the city’s skyline.

Death and Legacy

Artist Marc Chagall wearing a hat presses his hand against a wall with blue mosaic designs.
Artist Marc Chagall with his 'Four Seasons' mosaic at Chase Tower Plaza, 10 South Dearborn St., Chicago, Illinois. Li Erben/Sygma via Getty Images

Marc Chagall lived for 97 years. On March 28, 1985, he died in the elevator to his second floor studio in Saint-Paul-De-Vence. His nearby grave overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.

With a career that encompassed much of the 20th century, Chagall drew inspiration from many schools of modern art. Nevertheless, he remained a representational artist who combined recognizable scenes with dream-like images and symbols from his Russian Jewish heritage.

In his advice to young painters, Chagall said, "An artist must not fear to be himself, to express only himself. If he is absolutely and entirely sincere, what he says and does will be acceptable to others.''

Fast Facts Marc Chagall

  • Born: July 7, 1887 in a Hasidic community near Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus
  • Died: 1985, Saint-Paul-De-Vence, France
  • Parents: Feige-Ite (mother), Khatskl Shagal
  • Also known as: Moishe Shagal
  • Education: Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts, Svanseva School
  • Marriage: Bella Rosenfeld (married from 1915 until her death in 1944) and Valentina, or “Vava,” Brodsky (married from 1951 until Chagall's death in 1985).
  • Children: Ida Chagall (with Bella Rosenfeld), David McNeil (with Virginia Haggard McNeil).
  • Essential works: Bella With White Collar (1917), Green Violinist (1923-24), sets and costumes for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird (1945), Peace (1964, stained glass window in New York City's UN).

Sources