Born: Liozna, Belarus
“Great art picks up where nature ends.”
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Marc Chagall was the eldest of nine children born to Khatskl Shagal and Feige-Ite in the settlement town of Liozna, near Vitebsk, an area that boasted a high concentration of Jews. Raised in a Hasidic family, Chagall attended local Jewish religious schools – obligatory for Russian Jews during this time, since discrimination policies prohibited mixing of different racial groups – where he studied Hebrew and the Old Testament. Such teachings would later inform much of the content and motifs in Chagall’s paintings, etchings and stained-glass work.
During his school days, Chagall adopted the habit of drawing and copying images from books, which quickly developed into a love for art and the choice to pursue it as a career, a decision that did not please his parents. In 1906 Chagall began his tutelage with the famous Russian portrait artist Yehuda Pen, who operated an all-Jewish private school in Vitebsk for students of drawing and painting. Although grateful for the free formal instruction, Chagall left the school after several months.
That same year Chagall moved to St. Petersburg to continue his studies at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting where he briefly apprenticed under the artist and set designer Leon Bakst. Bakst, a devout Jew himself, is believed to have encouraged Chagall to introduce Jewish imagery and themes in his work, a practice that was unpopular at this time, especially given the Russian Empire’s hostility towards Jews.
Chagall moved to Paris in 1910, just as Cubism was emerging as the leading avant-garde movement. At the impressionable age of 23 and speaking no French, Chagall aligned himself with Cubism and enrolled in classes at a small art academy. In early paintings like The Poet, or Half Past Three and I and the Village (both 1911), Chagall is clearly adopting the abstract forms and dynamic compositions that characterize much of Cubism, yet he came to reject the movement’s more academic leanings, instead infusing his work with touches of humor, emotion and cheerful color.
Marc Chagall’s influence is as vast as the number of styles he assimilated to create his work. Although never completely aligning himself with any single movement, he interwove many of the visual elements of Cubism, Fauvism, Symbolism and Surrealism into his lyrically emotional aesthetic of Jewish folklore, dream-like pastorals, and Russian life. In this sense, Chagall’s legacy reveals an artistic style that is both entirely his own and a rich amalgam of prevailing Modern art disciplines. Chagall is also, much like Picasso, a prime example of a modern artist who mastered multiple media, including painting in both oil and gouache, watercolor, murals, ceramics, etching, drawing, theater and costume design, and stained-glass work.