Marc Chagall

One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Marc Chagall was born in 1887 in Liozne, east of Vitebsk, Russia, which is now part of Belarus. Chagall's birth name was Moishe Shagal and he came from a Hasidic family. Growing up in Russia, and especially in a Jewish shtetl, shaped Chagall's life and art in profound ways. His oeuvre was largely suffused with folk mysticism and a deep connection to his religious upbringing. At the same time, Chagall immersed himself in the cutting-edge developments of modernism and he put avant-garde approaches into conversation with traditional orthodoxies. Unlike other high-profile Jewish artists, Chagall never tried to deemphasize his faith. Rather, he often made it a central theme in his compositions. Chagall relocated to St. Petersburg in 1906 to pursue artistic training. He studied with Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting, during which time he was exposed to the vibrant colors of Henri Matisse and the Fauvists along with various Old Master painters and the Post-impressionists. Chagall also began to create theater sets and costumes while at art school.

After meeting his future wife, Bella Rosenfeld, on a return trip home to Vitebsk, Chagall moved alone in 1910 to Paris, which was the center of the art world. With Cubism all the rage, Chagall made the acquaintance of other young artists like Robert Delaunay and Amedeo Modigliani. During this period, Chagall incorporated Cubism as well as Fauvism, Orphism, and Futurism into his art. His paintings alternated between bold modernist experiments (e.g., The Drunkard, 1911-1912) and nostalgic renderings of his homeland and Jewish rituals (e.g., The Fiddler, 1912). Showing a strong use of visual metaphor, Chagall at times employed supernatural elements, which point toward the emergence of Surrealism. After experiencing success exhibiting his early works, Chagall was forced to stay in Russia for several years while visiting his fiancée prior to World War I. In 1923, Chagall at last returned to Paris with his wife, having produced mostly religious paintings in the face of the growing persecution of the Jews in Russia. Chagall's reputation grew throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s as his etchings for The Bible, Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, and La Fontaine's Fables were widely celebrated.

Once he completed extensive tours of Europe and the Middle East, Chagall found himself in personal danger as the specter of World War II loomed. Being a world-famous Jewish artist made him a Nazi target. In 1941, Chagall and his wife fled to New York City, arriving the day following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. Living in the United States did not suit Chagall particularly well, since he spoke little English at first, but he felt more comfortable after making friends with fellow expatriates, like painter Piet Mondrian and writer André Breton. With Henri Matisse's son representing him, Chagall was exhibited regularly. He also designed ballet sets for Aleko. Yet the war weighed heavily on Chagall when he learned of Vitebsk's destruction and the concentration camps in Europe. His wife Bella died in 1944, which made his desolation more pronounced, although the Museum of Modern Art staged a forty-year Chagall retrospective in 1946.

Chagall moved back to France in 1947, settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in Provence, northwest of Nice, and continued painting. In 1952, he married his second wife, Vava Brodsky. From 1960 to 1962, Chagall worked on a large stained-glass window commission for Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem that demonstrated magnificent use of color. He also painted a new ceiling for the Paris Opera building in 1963. Chagall continued to take on various public art projects in Europe and America in his later years while also making tapestries, ceramics, and sculptures. He passed away at home in 1985 in the midst of a religious painting entitled Job, which the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago had commissioned. Chagall is buried next to Vava Brodsky in the multi-denominational cemetery in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, but his legacy lives on as an incredibly significant and eclectic modern artist. Chagall's original paintings have sold for millions of dollars at auction and his works are held at the National Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and elsewhere.

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