Marc Chagall was named “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” As a pioneer of Modernism, he was always experimenting with new ideas and new methods of expression. Some of his most famous works include The Birthday, I and the Village, and Over the Town.
He was born in 1887 to a poor Jewish family in Russia. He was the eldest of nine children. Chagall began to display his artistic talent while studying at a secular Russian school. He began studying art seriously with Leon Bakst in St. Petersburg in 1907. It was at this time that his distinct style began to emerge. His paintings were about his childhood, a focus that would interest him for the rest of his life.
In 1910, Chagall, moved to Paris. There he painted some of his most famous paintings. He used strong and bright colors to portray the Jewish village in a dreamlike state. Fantasy, nostalgia, and religion came together in Chagall’s otherworldly images.
Chagall visited Russia in 1914 and couldn’t go home because of the outbreak of World War I. He made a home in Vitebsk, Russia. He founded an art school there and, in 1918, he was appointed Commissar for Art. In 1920, Chagall moved to Moscow and designed stage sets for the State Jewish Chamber Theater.
In 1931, Chagall travelled to Israel with his wife, Bella, and his daughter, Ida. While there, Chagall began a series of illustrations to the Bible. He travelled, painted, and drew in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Safed. The country left a vivid impression on him. When he returned to Paris, the light and landscape of Israel were echoed in his work.
During World War II Chagall fled to the United States. Through art, he expressed his horror over the Nazi rise to power. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gave him a retrospective in 1946.
Chagall settled permanently in France in 1948 but he continued to travel and exhibit his artwork around the world. In 1951 he returned to Israel and made his first sculptures. Then he travelled to Greece and Italy. During the 1960s, he created stained-glass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah University Medical Center, Jerusalem; He painted a ceiling for the Paris Opéra; He designed a window for the United Nations building in New York; He painted murals for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York; and created windows for the cathedral in Metz, France. The Louvre in Paris exhibited his work in 1967–77 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a major retrospective of his art in 1985.
Chagall died on March 28, 1985, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.
My personal favorite of Chagall’s work is Der Spaziergang. On the simplest level, I just love the image. As a teacher though, I use it and Over the Town as examples for a very fun first grade painting project in which I introduce the students to landscapes and figure drawing.
This year, I also used Chagall as our example for Modernism. Our lessons focused on Modernism as a rejection of tradition and an exploration of new ideas. In this regard, Marc Chagall is a wonderfully inspirational and liberating artist to study. His use of color, fantasy, memory, depth, design, and a variety of media can serve as launch points for innumerable lessons.
Portrait of Marc Chagall drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes