Moishe Segal was born on the 6th of July 1887 in Vitebsk
in a simple Jewish family. His father Zakhar was a loader employed by a herring merchant, his mother Feige-Ite ran a little shop, his grand-father worked as a teacher and a cantor in a synagogue. Being a child Moishe went to a primary Jewish religious school, then to gymnasium despite the fact that in tsarist Russia Jewish children were banned to study at secular schools. 19-years old Moishe entered the private School of drawing and painting of Yehuda Pen
under the influence of his mother though his father was strongly against it. He had studied there for only two months but it became the start of his career. A very bold start. Yehuda Pen was so struck by Moishe's daring manner of using colors that he allowed the young painter to attend his school for free.
Moishe was the eldest of nine children and all domestics as well as neighbors, merchants and simple men served him as models. Wooden houses, onion-like church cupolas, small grocery of his mother, Jewish Commandments, traditions and feasts, all this simple and difficult but so "solid" life rooted itself into the boy's heart for ever and images of native Vitebsk have been always repeated in his works.
In 1907 with only 27 rubles in his pockets Moishe Segal left for the Russian capital.
As Russian discriminatory policy against Jews was more severe in Saint Petersburg, the young man had to resort frequently to the help of some influential Jews. Besides, he was short of means and lived poorly, sometimes even on the verge of misery. Nevertheless, all these hardships were not of great importance for the young painter who found himself involved in the whirlpool of artistic life of the capital at the junction of two revolutions. Public revolutionary moods are always reflected in cultural life - avant-garde magazines that served a kind of centers uniting new ideas, pioneering exhibitions introducing modern western art: French fauvism, German expressionism, Italian futurism and many other currents - all this made a great influence upon formation of the young painter.
Still, learning and absorbing all the new, Moishe stood aside from various unions and groups and was generating his own inimitable style.
Search of his own fine art language is obvious already in his early works where we can see fabulous and metaphoric images on everyday life topics: "Birth", "The Deaf", "A Holy Family".
Over some years that Moishe lived in Saint Petersburg, he studied in the private school of Mr. Zaidenberg, worked in editorial office of Jewish magazine "Voskhod" ("Sunrise"), was a student of Leon Bakst at the Zvantseva's School of drawing and painting for two years. As Marc Chagall recollected it was Leon Bakst who let him "feel the breath of Europe" and impelled him to go to Paris for studies. Moishe attended as well courses of innovative painter Mstislav Dobujinsky. In spring 1910 his first exhibition took place in the editorial office of the avant-garde magazine "Apollon" ("Apollo").
In summer 1909 in Vitebsk the painter met Bella Rosenfeld, daughter of a local jeweler.
"... Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul...".
Marc Chagall, "My life".
They would marry on the 25th of July 1915 and Bella would always be his first love, wife and muse.
In August 1910 Maxim Vinaver, maecenas and deputy of the State Duma of 1905 gave the young painter a scholarship enabling him to go to Paris for studies. After arrival in Paris Moishe Segal adopted a pseudonym and became henceforth Marc Chagall in the French manner.
During his first year in Paris Marc Chagall rented a studio from painter Ehrenburg in Montparnasse
. He attended various classes in free academies of arts, painted at nights and spent whole days visiting exhibitions, salons and galleries and absorbing art skills of great masters: Delacroix
, van Gogh
and many others. He had a perfect feeling of colors and mastered very soon fauvism methods. "Now your colors are singing", - said his teacher from Saint Petersburg Bakst.
In 1911 Chagall moved to the "La Rouche"
building bought by Alfred Boucher after a sale at the Great Exposition of 1899, that became a kind of squat art center and shelter for lots of poor foreign painters. Here Chagall made acquaintance of a great number of Paris bohemians - poets and painters; he mastered methods of new trends and tendencies - cubism, futurism and orphism - having as always reshaped them in his own way; here he scored his first serious successes: "The Violinist"
, "To My Betrothed"
, "Paris Through the Window"
. In spite of his absolute and complete immersion in Paris artistic milieu, Marc Chagall didn't forget native Vitebsk. Such works as "The Pinch of Snuff"
, "The Cattle Dealer"
, "I and the Village"
are filled with love and nostalgia.
In spring 1914 Marc Chagall exhibited his paintings, several dozens of canvas and about one hundred fifty watercolors, in Berlin. A few personal and joint expositions with other painters were a success with the public. Then Chagall went to Vitebsk to visit Bella and his relatives. But the First World War broke out and postponed his return to Europe for an indefinite period of time.
Bella's brother Jacob Rosenfeld helped Marc Chagall to avoid recruitment in the army and to find a job: the painter was accepted at the Military industrial Committee in Petrograd. Chagall's creative work of that turbulent period was very multifaceted: while visiting native Vitebsk, the painter immersed in nostalgia and applied his new experience and energy to represent everyday life ("Window at the Dacha"
); but the war, wounded men, human grief and hardships are also reflected in his works ("War"
). He witnessed as well intensification of persecutions of Jews during the period of war that resulted in a number of strongly religious paintings ("Red Jew"
, "The feast of the Tabernacles"
). Lyrical works "Birthday"
, "Pink Lovers"
, "The Promenade"
, "Bella with White Collar"
created during that period all filled with love towards Bella. At that time Marc Chagall also started working on his autobiography "My Life"
On the 9th of August 1918, during the meeting on Arts Ministry creation that took place in Petrograd, Marc Chagall was offered the post of Chief of Fine Arts department but he refused it. Nevertheless, under the influence of Anatoly Lunacharsky
he accepted another offer and agreed to serve as an authorized representative on arts in the province of Vitebsk. Marc Chagall turned out to be an excellent organizer, he decorated Vitebsk enthusiastically for the first anniversary of the October Revolution in order to "introduce art to the masses". He also published an article titled "Revolution in art". Marc Chagall ran Free Academy in Vitebsk which became an important artistic center with many famous local and strangers painters working there as teachers. But one day after his homecoming from Moscow he found out that Free Academy was turned into Academy of suprematism - it was the first sign of growing discontent of new state authorities.
In 1920 Marc, Bella and their daughter Ida
born in 1916 moved to Moscow where Chagall actively participated in theatrical life by creating draft of sets for performances. Being a staunch adversary of suprematist art
but at the same time involved in new cultural tendencies, Marc Chagall revised significantly his own manner of painting that became closer to a new "revolutionary" style. Nevertheless, criticism of authorities, still hidden as Marc Chagall was a world-famous painter, grew stronger nourished by frankness and uncompromising stand of the painter himself.
On the 1st of January 1921 the first opening night of "Miniatures" performance based on plays of recently deceased Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem
took place. Marc Chagall was responsible for decorating of a small hall intended for performance. He made nine monumental paintings
on the walls, ceiling and curtain that in the author's concept represented an appeal for cultural renaissance of Jewish theater. "...I have a scope at last to express all that I find necessary for national theater renaissance". But his work was not understood, attacks and criticism coming from "truly revolutionary" painters and authorities grew stronger and already one year later People's Education committee sent Marc Chagall to teach painting in a colony for homeless children. Lack of understanding and antagonism coming from the existing regime forced Marc Chagall to leave the country.
For one year after his departure Bella and Ida lived in Berlin which became a shelter for emigrants from Russia and other countries. Marc Chagall made unsuccessful efforts to obtain money owing for his exhibition of 1914 but the inflation brought to naught his attempts. He managed to get back only three paintings and a dozen of watercolors.
In spring 1923 Berlin editor and gallerist Paul Cassirer
suggested Marc Chagall to publish the autobiography "My Life" illustrated by the painter himself. Chagall accepted the offer and immersed completely in mastering of engraving art. At the end of summer he received a letter from his old friend from Paris: "Come back, you are famous. Ambroise Vollard is waiting for you to come."
When Chagall returned to Paris, he found out that the majority of his works (left in "La Rouche" eight years ago) that made him famous had been lost. The painter braced himself and recreated some paintings made during his first stay in Paris from memory, using sketches and reproductions: "Birthday", "I and the Village ", "Over Vitebsk" and others.
After the end of the war Ambroise Vollard, passionate bibliophile, collector and editor, decided to publish a set of books illustrated by famous modern painters and proposed Marc Chagall to take part in this project. The painter chose "Dead Souls" by Gogol and coped perfectly with his task. His metaphoric and fantastic graphic work reflects supremely well biting Gogol's satire.
In Paris Marc Chagall met his old friends and found new ones. Sociable and cheery, he found common languages with everyone, still it didn't prevent him from standing, as usual, aside from various associations and currents. He refused to join surrealists: "deliberately fantastic painting is alien to me ". Chagall was keeping away from charts, manifestos and slogans as he preferred a pure freedom of creation.
Fame brought him a financial freedom - he could travel over France and Europe with his family, finding peace and serenity after all he had gone through. Chagall's new paintings were joyful and light: "Peasant Life"
, "Double Portrait", "Ida at the Window". It should be mentioned that paintings created during this period are not so numerous as Marc spent most of his time and efforts illustrating "Dead Souls", "Fables" by La Fontaine
and the Bible.
In 1931 Marc Chagall and his family visited Palestine. The painter discovered the land of his ancestors and perceived the center of his faith. According to Marc Chagall, several months spent in the Holy Land made on him the greatest impression than anything before. After returning to Paris, he set to a new project - illustration of the Bible. Being already truly established as an artist and a person, Marc Chagall reflected upon and comprehended Bible symbols and scenes in his eau-forts.
At the end of 1930s Germany was listening to Hitler's speeches and hearing steps of Nazi boots. New anti-Semitic laws had been adopted, Munich hosted an exhibition "Degenerate art"
, showing among others Chagall's paintings. Once again Europe sank into the darkness of war. Thanks to the help of the Emergency Committee to Save European Jewry and consul of the USA in Marseille Marc Chagall and his family escaped to the USA and brought with them his paintings.
The USA sheltered lots of emigrants from Europe and grow soon interested in the European culture. Exhibitions united by the common topic of "art in exile" took place in New York that became a kid of port for refugees. Pierre Matisse, son of famous painter Henri Matisse, let Marc Chagall work and exhibit paintings in his gallery. At that period Chagall was mainly working at unfinished paintings brought from the Old World.
In spring 1942 Leonid Myasin
, choreographer and former dancer of "Ballets Russes", invited Marc Chagall to design sets for the ballet "Aleko". The painter made sceneries and four huge colorful backgrounds recreating the fairy-tale atmosphere of Pushkin's poem. Chagall also created sceneries for the performance "The Firebird" by George Balanchine, but Igor Stravinsky didn't like them and it was Picasso who was chosen to create new sceneries. However, costumes sewed by Ida under Marc's sketches were accepted.
In August 1944 the Chagalls learnt with joy that Paris was liberated from Nazis. The end of the war was approaching and they were impatient to return in France. But in a couple of days, on the 2nd of September Bella died of sepsis in a local hospital. "Everything is covered with darkness". The painter was completely stunned by his sudden grief and restarted working only nine months later in order to create two paintings in memory of his beloved: "The Wedding Lights"
and "Around Her". Chagall moved to a small house in the town of High Falls
where he began to work at illustrations for "One Thousand and One Nights". The painter created thirteen wonderful sparkling engravings the colorful richness of which excellently harmonized with Arabian fairy-tales.
In 1945 Ida invited Virginia Haggard-McNeil, interpreter from French and daughter of former consul of Great Britain, to help her. Virginia was almost two times younger than Marc but she resembled Bella by her appearance. Chagall couldn't stand being lonely. They entered into a romance and had a child together, David McNeil born in 1946. Virginia had lived with Marc for seven years and even moved to Paris but finally left him with their son. Due to his success in the USA that made him a well-to-do person Chagall managed to move definitively to France that had already become so native and dear for him. Unfortunately, his friend and permanent client Vollard had died at the beginning of the Second World War. However, a Paris publisher Eugene Teriad bought up Vollard's heritage and published at last many years' works by Chagall in the field of books illustration. Thanks to that appear "Dead Souls" by Gogol (1948), "Fables" by La Fontaine (1952) and the Bible in French (1956). Bible scenes always accompanied creative life of the painter; Marc Chagall resorted to this topic at the end of his life. In addition to 105 eau-forts (created in 1935-1939 and 1952-1956) he made lots of paintings, drawings, engravings, glass and ceramic paintings, tapestries for the Bible in French. All these works formed "Message Biblique" to the world. Specially for this "Message" Marc Chagall opened a kind of museum
in Nice in 1973. This "temple" was recognized as official national museum by French government.
In 1952 Marc Chagall met Valentina Brodskaya who became soon just "Vava" and his official wife. Their marriage was happy but Bella still remained the main Chagall's muse. In 1950s Chagall and his family travelled a lot, namely across the Mediterranean - in Greece and Italy. The painter admired the Mediterranean culture: wall paintings and icons that inspired him to create color lithographs for "Daphnis and Chloe" by ancient Greek writer Longus (1960-1962) as well as to take a great interest in monumental techniques of wall paintings and stained glass windows. Since 1960s Chagall had been mostly working on monumental types of art - mosaics, stained glass windows, tapestries, sculpture and ceramics. At the beginning of 1960s he made mosaics and tapestries for parliament building in Jerusalem ordered by the government of Israel. After this success Marc Chagall became "Andrei Rublev" of that time and received numerous orders to decorate Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches as well as synagogues all over Europe, America and Israel.
In 1964 Marc Chagall painted the ceiling for the Paris Opera
under the order of French president Charles de Gaulle, in 1966 he made two panels for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1972 he decorated the building of the National Bank in Chicago with the mosaic "Four Seasons". In 1966 Chagall moved to a house-studio specially built for him in the province of Nice - Saint-Paul-de-Vence
. In 1973 Marc Chagall visited Leningrad
on invitation of the Ministry of Culture of USSR. Exhibitions of his works were organized in the Tretyakov gallery. The painter made the country present of several of his works. In 1977 Marc Chagall was awarded with the highest French decoration - the Cross of the Legion of Honour and his personal exhibition was organized in Louvre in 1977-1978, timed to the 90th anniversary of the painter. Contrary to all rules Louvre hosted exhibition of still living artist!
Until his very last day Marc Chagall worked at paintings, mosaics, stained glass windows, sculptures, ceramics and theater sets. On the 28th of March 1985 97-year old painter died in the elevator after a whole day spent in his studio. He died "flying", as he had been once foretold by a Gipsy and as he often represented himself at his pictures.