Marc Chagall

Russian, 1887 - 1985
Marc Chagall was born in 1887 in Vitebsk, Belarus. As a young boy Chagall attended a traditional Jewish school before transferring to the local Russian high school, where he first received artistic training. After completing high school Chagall moved to St. Petersburg to attend art school. Chagall frequently traveled home and in 1910, during one of these trips back to Vitebsk, he met Bella Rosenfeld. Consumed by love, the young couple became engaged after a brief courtship. Shortly after their engagement Chagall moved to Paris to continue his artistic training. Despite his initial pangs of loneliness, Chagall eventually became enthralled with Paris. The young artist spent his days walking the streets, reveling in the city’s markets, and frequenting its museums and monuments. The Eiffel Tower emerged as a prominent feature in his work during this period.

After four years in Paris, Chagall arranged to return to Belarus to marry Bella. Shortly after his arrival, war broke out, closing the borders of Belarus indefinitely. This period of wedded bliss resulted in Chagall’s iconic images of a bride and groom floating over Vitebsk. This tumultuous and dangerous period in the political history of Belarus resulted in a number of professional opportunities for Chagall. By 1917, Chagall had achieved international recognition and was one of Belarus’s preeminent modernist painters. In the years following the Revolution, living conditions deteriorated in Moscow and in 1922 Chagall applied for an exit visa in order to return to Paris. During this period of uncertainty, Chagall penned his autobiography, My Life.

As a Jewish artist whose imagery was primarily based in Hassidic cultural traditions, the Nazi Party in Germany regarded his work as “degenerate.” After the onset of World War II, the political climate became increasingly dangerous for Chagall and his family, though the artist remained naively unaware of the situation. Underestimating the danger he and his family were in, Chagall remained in France after Nazi occupation. As anti-Semitism increased dramatically in France and the Vichy government began prosecuting Jewish citizens, Chagall became cognizant of the danger he faced, but it was too late. Unable to afford passage to America, Chagall was trapped in Nazi-occupied France. Salvation came in 1941, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, when his name was added by the museum to the list being compiled by the United States government of artists and intellectuals whose lives were at risk in Europe. The United States government provided Chagall and his family with forged visas and smuggled them out of France. With assistance from his daughter and her husband, Chagall was also able to transport some of his work to America.

Only after arriving in New York did Chagall begin to comprehend the extent of his international reputation. Celebrity status was thrust upon the bewildered artist, who found himself once again in a strange city, unable to speak the language. In 1946, The Museum of Modern Art in New York held a large retrospective of Chagall’s work; but the artist continued to yearn for France and made arrangements to return in 1947 for the opening of his exhibition at the Musée National d’Art Moderne.

Chagall lived until the age of ninety-eight, making him the last surviving master of European Modernism. He had endured and witnessed the devastations of the Bolshevik Revolution and both World Wars to become a living icon, celebrated during his own lifetime and after his death for his mastery of color and the unique nature of his compositions.
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