Marc Chagall (1887–1985)
By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
The Chagall Museum in Nice has the largest collection of Marc Chagall's work in captivity anywhere. Between 1954 and 1967, he painted 17 large murals designed for, and donated to, this museum. These paintings, inspired by the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, and the Song of Songs, make up the "nave," or core, of what Chagall called the "House of Brotherhood."
Chagall is born in the small town of Vitebsk, Belarus. He's the oldest of nine children in a traditional Russian, Hasidic Jewish family. He studies realistic art in his hometown. In St. Petersburg, he is first exposed to the modernist work of Paul Cézanne and the Fauves.
A patron finances a four-year stay in Paris. He hobnobs with the avant-garde, and learns technique from the Cubists, but he never abandons painting recognizable figures or his own personal fantasies. (Some say his relative poverty forced him to paint over used canvases, which gave him the idea of overlapping images that bleed through. Hmm.)
Returning to his hometown, Chagall marries Bella Rosenfeld (1915), whose love will inspire him for decades. He paints happy scenes despite the turmoil of wars and the Communist Revolution. Moving to Moscow (1920), he paints his first large-scale works, sets for the New Jewish Theatre. These would inspire much of his later large-scale works.
1923–1941: France and Palestine
Chagall returns to France. In 1931, he travels to Palestine, where the bright sun and his Jewish roots inspire a series of gouaches (opaque watercolor paintings). These gouaches would later inspire 105 etchings to illustrate the Bible (1931–1952), which would eventually inspire the 17 large canvases of biblical scenes in the Chagall Museum (1954–1967).
1941–1947: United States/World War II
Fearing persecution for his Jewish faith, Chagall emigrates to New York, where he spends the war years. The crucifixion starts to appear in his paintings — not as a Christian symbol, but as a representation of the violence mankind perpetrates on itself. In 1947, his beloved Bella dies, and he stops painting for months.
1947–1985: South of France
After the war, Chagall returns to France, eventually settling in St-Paul-de-Vence. He remarries (Valentina Brodsky, in 1952). His new love, plus the southern sunshine, bring Chagall a revived creativity — he will be extremely prolific for the rest of his life. He experiments with new techniques and media: ceramics, sculpture, book illustrations, tapestry, and mosaic. In 1956, he's commissioned for his first stained-glass project. Eventually he'll do windows for cathedrals in Metz and Reims, and a synagogue of Jerusalem (1960). The Chagall Museum opens in 1973. Marc Chagall dies in 1985 at the age of 98 and is buried in St-Paul-de-Vence.
Chagall uses a deceptively simple, almost childlike style to paint a world that's hidden to the eye — the magical, mystical world below the surface. Here are some of the characteristics of his paintings:
Deep, radiant colors, inspired by Fauvism and Expressionism.
Personal imagery, particularly from his childhood in Russia — smiling barnyard animals, fiddlers on the roof, flower bouquets, huts, and blissful sweethearts.
A Hasidic Jewish perspective — the idea that God is everywhere, appearing in everyday things like nature, animals, and humdrum activities.
A fragmented Cubist style. This multi-faceted, multi-dimensional style is perfect to capture the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, colorful complexity of God's creation.
Overlapping images, like double-exposure photography, with faint images that bleed through — suggesting there's more to life under the surface.
Stained-glass-esque — dark, deep, earthy, "potent" colors, and simplified, iconic, symbolic figures.
Gravity-defying compositions, with lovers, animals, and angels twirling blissfully in mid-air.
Happy, not tragic. Despite the violence and turmoil of world wars and revolution, he painted a world of personal joy.
Childlike simplicity. Chagall draws with simple, heavy outlines, filled in with Crayola colors that often spill over the lines. Major characters in a scene are bigger than the lesser characters. The smiling barnyard animals, the bright colors, the magical events presented as literal truth... Was Chagall a lightweight? Or a lighter-than-air-weight?
Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Provence & the French Riviera guidebook — for up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition. We also offer free-spirited France tours.