Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Belarus in 1887. Chagall began his artistic career in 1906 after moving to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg where he enrolled in art school. He studied under Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of drawing and painting. Bakst, who was also Jewish, became a model of art world success for the young Chagall.
Chagall moved to Paris in 1910 to further develop his style. There he befriended avant-garde luminaries such as Appolinaire, Delaunay and Léger. Chagall’s style developed through his paintings of his hometown of Vitebsk, many with Jewish motifs. His work often included repeating symbols such as livestock and floating figures.
Chagall returned to Vitebsk via Berlin where he exhibited several canvases. After arriving in the Russian Empire the first world war broke out and the borders were sealed. He and his then wife, Bella, remained in Russia during the revolution. Due to his status as one of Russia’s best known artists, Chagall was offered a teaching position at Vitebsk Art College with fellow artists El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. Though the school was the premier arts academy in the newly formed Soviet Union, Chagall found that the faculty tended towards the harsh geometry of Malevich’s Suprematism and was less receptive of Chagall’s individualist philosophy and style. In the years that followed he and his wife lived in and outside of Moscow in increasingly uncomfortable circumstances leading to their move back to France in 1922 in search of artistic growth as well as a more comfortable life.
Upon his return he formed a relationship with the famed dealer of modernism, Ambroise Vollard. He began creating illustrations and etchings. Chagall found great happiness living and working in France, however, in nearby Germany his work was debased by the authoritarian regime based on its modernism but also jewish themes. After the occupation the Chagall’s remained in Vichy, unable to afford passage to America. Finally, through the help of the Museum of Modern art and Alfred Barr, he was placed on a list of artists whom the US government would try to extricate. In 1941 Chagall and his wife were successfully smuggled out of German occupied France and arrived in New York in June of 1941. Chagall was welcomed into artistic fold in New York, having already achieved fame in the United States.
The war had a major effect on the artist, especially after learning of the suffering that took place in concentration camps and the treatment of the Jewish people as a whole. He thought that we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of “Christianity” in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent… I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn’t concern them.’ (Benjamin Harshav: Marc Chagall and his times: a documentary narrative. Contraversions: Jews and Other Differences. Stanford University Press; 1 edition. August 2003.p.83).
In 1948 he returned to France where he lived for the remainder of his life. During that time he travelled to the south of France, now a de facto artists colony. He created many paintings, gouauches and graphic art but also explored sculpture, stained glass, ceramics and murals. In 1963, amidst controversy, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the ciling of the Paris Opera. Many in Paris though that as a Russian Jew Chagall was not the right person to decorate the ceiling of a French National monument and the press was eager to point it out. Chagall did go ahead with the commission and at its unveiling in 1964 it was almost unanimously described as a triumph.
Chagall died at the age of 97 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, the last of the Modern Masters.