Marc Chagall was a Russian-French artist. An early modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.
Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” (though Chagall saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”). According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be “the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists”. For decades, he “had also been respected as the world’s preeminent Jewish artist”. Using the medium of stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, windows for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.
Before World War I, he traveled between St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During this period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his idea of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. He spent the wartime years in Soviet Belarus, becoming one of the country’s most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, founding the Vitebsk Arts College before leaving again for Paris in 1922.
Ambroise Vollard became his dealer, and he illustrated several books for him, including the Bible, whose subjects are found everywhere in his paintings and engravings. When Jews began to be persecuted, Chagall obtained French citizenship, which protected him for a time. However, he was forced to flee to the US in 1941. When he returned in 1948 after the death of his beloved wife Bella, he went to live on the Riviera.
In 1966, Chagall moved with Vava, the last great love of his life, to Saint Paul de Vence. He developed an enormous affection for the town, and his works from this period contain the most iconic components of his paintings, like the bouquet of flowers, the intertwined couple and the goat. Chagall lived in Saint Paul de Vence for twenty years until his death, producing a series of paintings where a pair of lovers seem to float over the town that had provided him with “the most beautiful light imaginable” .
He had two basic reputations, writes Lewis: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism’s “golden age” in Paris, where “he synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, and the influence of Fauvism gave rise to Surrealism”. Yet throughout these phases of his style “he remained most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk.”
“When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is”.