Olga's Gallery

Marc Chagall Biography

Marc Chagall Portrait

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was a Russian-Jewish painter of the 20th Century and one of the best known representatives of the Russian Avant-Garde in the West. Chagall painted in a style all his own, combining elements of Expressionism, Symbolism, Cubism and, to a lesser degree, other Modernist art movements. A prolific and multi-faceted artist, Chagall left behind him thousands of works in many different techniques and media that have established him as one of the foremost artists of the 20th Century.

Early Life and Formative Period

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, a city in the north of present-day Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1887.

His original name was Moshe or Moishe Shagal; "Moshe" is Hebrew for Moses, while "Shagal" is a variation of the common Jewish surname Segal or Seagal. In his papers, his name was russified by the authorities to Mark Zakharovich Shagalov. The name "Marc Chagall," by which the painter is best known, was adopted when the painter arrived in Paris and combined the "Mark" of his Russian name with the "Shagal" of his original name, and rendered it in the French spelling

The Russian Empire had strong discriminatory laws against Jews that banned them from living in central Russia, confining them to the far Western territories of the Empire. There, they were also forbidden from living in the major cities and, simultaneously, prevented from owning land and living in small villages. Effectively, this confined them to the mid-sized towns, called shtetls or mestechki. Vitebsk was a typical example of this. Out of the city's 50,000 residents, over half were Jewish.

Access to education was similarly very limited. State schools accepted only a small number of Jewish students and to become a doctor or a lawyer, a Jewish person required express permission from the government. Life in the shtetls was thus characterized by poverty and a poor level of education, most of which was provided by locally organized Jewish schools.

Marc Chagall's father, Zakhar Chagall, was a trader of pickled herring and, in terms of education and outlook was as far as it is possible to be from the world of art. Chagall's brothers followed in the footsteps of their father, working low-paying, unqualified jobs. Marc's mother, Feige-Ita, was a housewife and, like the rest of the family, had no higher education. However, it was her efforts that broke the boy Chagall free from the world into which he was born and gave him the opportunity to realize his innate talent.

Feige-Ita doted on her son and, after he completed the Cheder, or Jewish elementary school at the local synagogue, she paid a bribe to the local Russian authorities to get her son into a state school, despite the stringent quotas. She also encouraged him to exercise his abilities and he was soon taking lessons in drawing, singing and violin.

Quite soon, Chagall had broadened his understanding of the world to the point where he no longer found the company of his parents and their circle of friends and acquaintances intellectually stimulating. While still in school, Chagall met the established painter Yehuda Pen, after seeing a sign advertising art lessons. Pen recognized the young man's talent and, in 1906, after Chagall graduated from school, he entered Pen's studio as a pupil.

Pen himself had been educated in St. Petersburg and it was doubtless he who planted the idea of visiting the Russian capital in the mind of Chagall. This was difficult. In order to travel into central Russia and especially the capital, Jews were required to have special permission. But Chagall persevered and, in 1907, together with his friend Victor Mekler, he obtained the necessary paperwork.

In St. Petersburg, he enrolled in the school run by the Society for Promotion of Artists, where he studied under Nikolas Roerich, and his technique improved rapidly. A year later, in 1908, he transferred to the renowned Art School of Ekaterina Zvantseva, where he studied under Leon Bakst. One of his earliest works is Young Girl on a Sofa (1907), a portrait of his sister Mariaska, in which the painter's touch is still raw and unrefined. Rapid improvement is seen through the works of the period: Red Nude Sitting Up (1908), Self-Portrait with Brushes (1909), Russian Wedding (1909) and, at last, Birth (1910). The latter two works are heavily inspired by Chagall's early life in Vitebsk. He would return to this theme often and nostalgically throughout his career although shtetl life for him was, by this point, a thing of the past.

In 1909, while on a visit to Vitebsk, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld, the charming and educated daughter of a Jewish jeweler. Though Bella was only 14 at the time, the two fell in love immediately. Their relationship would last 35 years and remained close and loving until the moment of Bella's untimely death.

For the moment, however, Chagall could do nothing. He was a penniless painter and Bella was, in any case, little more than a child. He returned to St. Petersburg.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Paris had been considered the cultural and artistic heart of Europe, to which the nascent national art movements of Northern, Central and Eastern turned to as their model. No painter's education was considered complete without a visit to the metropolis, much as earlier painters had flocked to Venice, Rome and Florence. Furthermore, in the first decade of the 20th Century, there was growing interest within the Parisian beau-monde for the culture of Russia, which seemed to them excitingly exotic.

Paris was what Chagall set his sights on, with the encouragement and advice of his friends and teachers. In 1910, the Russian-Jewish lawyer Maxim Winawer (Vinaver) agreed to sponsor the young painter's trip to the French capital.

First Paris Period

Marc Chagall did not like Paris at first. For a young man coming from the backwater of Vitebsk, life in the great French metropolis was too quick-paced and busy. He wrote later that his first impulse was to turn around and return home. Fortunately, however, he did not do this.

Paris at the time was home to many Russian intellectuals and artists, including fellow painters Wassily Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine and Ossip Zadkine, so Chagall had no trouble getting around, meeting the French artistic elite or acquiring the appropriate licenses for studying artwork in galleries and museums.

According to the painter, it was the works of the old masters, on display at the Louvre, that had the greatest effect on him and convinced him to remain in the city that he initially disliked.

The artist quickly made the acquaintance of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who were busy developing their theory of Cubism, Robert Delaunay and the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, among many others. Chagall carefully studied the artistic innovations and movements of the past 60 years, starting with the Impressionists and ending with the Pointillists, Fauves and Cubists. He particularly admired the bold and eccentric brush of Vincent Van Gogh. The Cubist influence can clearly be seen in such works as I and the Village (1911), The Poet (1911) and Adam and Eve (1912).

Cubism and Impressionism, however, with their analytical and almost scientific approach to composition and color, did not suit Chagall and he quickly moved beyond these styles into something that can best be described as a blend of Expressionism and Symbolism. These, Guillaume Apollinaire, who became Chagall's close friend, described as "supernatural" and, later, as "surreal". The later Surrealism Movement would name itself after these very words of Apollinaire. Indeed, Chagall would be a major influence on the Surrealists, though never a surrealist himself.

Chagall's paintings of this period frequently feature scenes from the daily life of the shtetl, which the artist often used to convey a moral and philosophical message. To the enlightened French public, these works were a shock, and Chagall was often criticized for the vulgarity of his paintings. Works of this vein include To My Betrothed (1911), Interior II (1911), The Soldier Drinks (1911-12), The Cattle Dealer (1912) and The Fiddler (1912-1913).

Although the money that Chagall received from his patron Winawer was enough for him to subsist on, it did not give him much elbow room. In his autobiography, the artist claimed that he would go days without eating. While this is probably an exaggeration, it is true that he often couldn't afford art supplies. Many of his early works were painted on used canvases. Chagall skillfully wove the existing lines and markings into his works. Probably the clearest example of this is To My Betrothed (1911).

The studio Chagall initially rented in Montmartre was cramped and furthermore the painter had to share it with another artist. In the beginning of 1912, he moved into the famous La Ruche ("The Beehive"), an artists' colony on the outskirts of Paris and home to painters who would one day be considered some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. Though dirty and run-down, the studios of La Ruche were cheap and roomier than Chagall's previous residence.

Between the years 1910 and 1914, Chagall's works were exhibited several times in the Spring and Autumn Salon and in the Salon des Independents, but the painter had no solo exhibitions and only few of his works were sold. In 1914, Apollinaire recommended Chagall to Herwarth Walden, a German Expressionist painter, and founder and editor of the magazine Der Sturm (The Storm), the famous Expressionist periodical.

Walden became greatly interested in Chagall's unique artistic vision and offered to organize a grand solo exhibition for the painter in his art gallery. Chagall gladly accepted, hoping that this breakthrough would finally enable him to make his name and to, importantly, ease his monetary difficulties. The painter's work was well-received by the German public and the exhibition was, indeed, a financial success. Chagall, however, would never reap the gains of this because, on June 13, 1914, he had crossed the border back into Russia to visit his family and his sweetheart Bella in Vitebsk. On August 1, Germany declared war against France and Russia, and Chagall, who had intended to stay in his homeland for only a few weeks, was forced to remain there.

War and Revolution

Chagall would always speak of the compulsory 8-year stay in Russia as a setback in terms of his artistic career. In doing this, however, he completely ignores the many important developments that occurred during the period, both with regard to his art and his personal life.

In the summer of 1914, few people supposed that the First World War would last very long. Everybody, including the commanders of the opposing armies, expected quick, mobile campaigns along the lines of the Franco-Prussian War or the American Civil War. Chagall's main concern during this initial period was to avoid service in the Russian army at any cost.

Unlike his close friend Apollinaire, who signed up voluntarily for front-line service in the first days of the conflict, Chagall was not overcome with patriotic zeal for his country and, in truth, he had good reason. The Russian Empire had for hundreds of years treated Jews as second-class citizens, and this had only gotten worse in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. For Chagall to take up arms in support of this regime would have been madness.

Furthermore, with his slight build, good manners and broad education, the painter was hardly made for the rough life of a soldier -- Jews were not allowed to become officers --, where he would have furthermore had to endure maltreatment and discrimination at the hands of his fellows and superiors.

Chagall stayed in Vitebsk, hoping to sit the war out there. In 1915, he finally married Bella (she would keep her maiden name and became Bella Rosenfeld-Chagall), despite the opposition of her parents, who wanted a better match for their daughter. The painter would be reconciled with his in-laws after the birth of his and Bella's child, Ida Chagall, in 1916.

Chagall's art of the time is executed mostly in the Cubist or Expressionist styles, as seen in The Smolensk Newspaper (1914), Window in the Country (1915), The Birthday (1915), Bella with White Collar (1917) and Cemetery Gates (1917). Under the influence of the simple and down-to-earth life of Vitebsk, many works feature views of nature, country life and domestic scenes. As if to demonstrate his skill, Chagall executed a number of works with a high degree of realism, such as The Praying Jew (Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914) and his Self-Portrait (1914).

Meanwhile, it was becoming obvious that the war would last for much longer than had originally been expected, and have a much higher cost in lives. In 1915, though his brother-in-law Yakov (Jacob) Rosenfeld, Chagall secured a clerical post at the War Ministry in St. Petersburg, which freed him from active service. The Russian capital did not agree with him and, between this lack of inspiration and the tedious but busy job, the artist painted less.

In St. Petersburg, he did finally catch up with the artistic developments that had been going on in Russia while he stayed in Paris. He became familiar with the Primitivism movement of Mikhail (Michael) Larionov and Natalia Goncharova and experimented with this style in such works as The Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkot; 1916). However, Chagall refused to adopt either of these styles, which conflicted with his aesthetic ideals.

In 1917 came the Bolshevik Revolution. Chagall, like many Russian-Jewish intellectuals was enthused for the changes brought by this new political system. Among other things, Jews were guaranteed equal status under the law, for the first time in the history of Russia. Furthermore, the future that was promised by the Communists was bright, prosperous and carefree.

Under the new government, Anatoliy Lunacharsky, an art critic and journalist with whom Chagall had been acquainted in Paris, was appointed People's Commissar in charge of Enlightenment, making him responsible for everything that had to do with art, education and culture in the Soviet Union. Lunacharsky remembered his Parisian acquaintance and offered Chagall the post of Commissar of Art for the Vitebsk region. Chagall accepted gladly.

This was a rather odd appointment. Chagall was not known to have any strong political beliefs; he was not and never became a member of the Communist party; the themes featured in his paintings are concerned strictly with everyday life, never politics. Thus, we can only speculate about what guided the long-time Bolshevik Lunacharsky to select Chagall for the post.

Arrving in Vitebsk in the fall of 1918, he plunged into the business of fulfilling his new duties. He organized exhibitions and opened museums and galleries. Yehuda Pen's old art school, where the painter had attended his first drawing classes was converted into the Vitebsk Academy of Art and Chagall became its director. Soon, a number of prominent artists, especially Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky came there to teach, partly out of respect for Pen and Chagall's undertaking, and partly because St. Petersburg and Moscow were experiencing food shortages that were not felt in the relatively stable Vitebsk area.

The Vitebsk Academy would go on to become one of the foremost and influential art centers in the Soviet Union and, to a degree, the world.

Despite his initial activism, Chagall was not really cut out for the role of leadership. He was introverted and more interested in pursuing art for its own sake then organizing education and expounding on art theory. The Suprematists, Malevich and Lissitzky, took advantage of this in order to promote their own agenda at the academy, in spite of Chagall. This conflict ultimately resulted in Chagall's resignation from the post of director of the Vitebsk Academy in 1920, and his departure, with his family, to Moscow.

Although Chagall was somewhat influenced by Suprematist style, visible in the large, bright primary shapes of works such as Peasant Life (The Stable; Night; a Man with a Whip) (1917) and Composition with Circles and Goats (1920), the painter did not adopt the Suprematists' underlying theory: that art and aesthetics should be completely abstract. Chagall's works are always grounded in day-to-day reality, whatever style they are painted in.

During this time, also, the painter was fascinated by the art of the Italian Renaissance, which can be inferred from his frequent references to their art in his writing. Promenade (1917) and Double Portrait with Wine-Glass (1917-1918), with their conventional composition, though unconventional in style and symbolism, are both nods to the classicist tradition.

In Moscow, the Chagalls lived in relative poverty. The painter no longer occupied any official post and, furthermore, since his art carried no political message, there was no chance of receiving large government commissions. Chagall went to work for the Jewish State Chamber Theater (Gosudarstvenniy Evreiskiy Kamerniy Teatr), where he designed the stage decorations and painted a series of murals. He also taught drawing at a local orphanage.

During the first years after the revolution, the Soviet authorities treated art with relative liberalism. However, art was always seen as an important tool of enlightenment and propaganda and, quite soon, artists were required to paint in accordance with the official ideas of the party. Carefree creativity, such as that of Chagall, was completely contrary to this new order of things.

Furthermore, Lenin condemned all Modern art as being too far removed from the tastes and understanding of the common people. Social Realism was endorsed as the official style of the USSR. This left little room in the Russian art world for Chagall or, indeed, for any of his colleagues, Suprematists and Primitivists included.

In 1922, Chagall requested permission to leave the country. Through Lunacharsky, he obtained it and departed for Berlin, where he hoped to meet Herwarth Walden and find out what had become of the paintings Chagall had left with him. The painter would not set foot in Russia again for nearly 51 years.

Paris Revisited

Before the war, Herwarth Walden had been left in possession of 150 of Chagall's paintings, all of which had been sold. In fact, Chagall's name now carried some currency in the West, especially Germany and France, where his works had served as an influence on the emerging Dadaist and Surrealist schools. Max Ernst, in particular, had expressed admiration for Chagall's style.

However, immediately after leaving the Soviet Union, the painter was little concerned with this aspect of the matter. Penniless and with a family to support, he wanted to receive his fair share of the proceeds from the sale of his paintings. Walden had not forgotten Chagall and had kept the artist's revenues on a separate bank account. Unfortunately, this not inconsiderable sum had been swallowed up by rapid inflation in Germany and amounted to almost nothing. Chagall would hear none of Walden's reasoning and justification, and went immediately to court.

In the end, Walden was forced to hunt down some of the paintings he had sold and buy them back for Chagall as compensation.

After this unpleasant beginning, things for Chagall went more smoothly. In 1922, at the age of 35, he finished the illustrated autobiography My Life that he had started in Russia, which also acted as a statement of his artistic views and theory, such that it was: Chagall had always approached art spontaneously, rejecting any analytical approach.

The text of the autobiography, however, was only available in Russian in which he had written it. The illustrations were published on their own by Paul Cassirer, the famous art dealer and publisher. The autobiography itself was published 9 years later, in 1931, after Bella translated it into French.

From Berlin, Chagall wrote to his old acquaintances in France to see about finding commissions and moving to Paris. His early work had caused much talk there as well and he quickly found people interested in his art. Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer and good friend of Picasso, offered Chagall a commission to illustrate Nikolai Gogol's book The Dead Souls and the painter left for the French capital.

The years that followed were calm and prosperous -- Chagall later described them as the best years of his life -- and this was reflected in the painter's art. The grim, brooding compositions and colors that had cropped up so often in his earlier work disappear almost completely and his new paintings feature a placidity and stillness not seen before. For another painter, this change might have been fatal in terms of the originality of their work, but under Chagall's brush the paintings of 1920s are just as expressive, if not more so, than his output of the 1910s. Examples of such works include: The Watering Trough (1925), Peasant Life (1925; compare this work with I and the Village of 1911), Bella in Mourillon (1926), Equestrienne (1927) and Fruits and Flowers (1929). A particularly touching painting is Lovers in the Lilacs (1931).

The painter had a number of exhibitions, including a large retrospective in Paris in 1924. In 1927, he had his first solo exhibition in the United States, in New York.

The painter's new-found serenity would not last long into the 1930s. The grim spectre of anti-Semitism was rearing its head in Europe. In 1933, the Nazi party came to power in Germany on a platform that, among other things, openly espoused hatred against Jews and called for their repression and removal from Germany. Germany, however, was far from being the only country to have such a change. Eastern Europe, where there was a historically large population of Jewish people, anti-Semitism was a recurring problem that intensified every few decades before dying down again.

The 1930s saw another such cycle in that area of the world and Chagall, as an Eastern European Jew himself, with many friends and family in those countries, felt this rise of anti-Semitism strongly. In 1934, while in Warsaw, Poland, Chagall witnessed one of his friends assaulted in the street for his religious beliefs. In 1937, the Nazis confiscated 59 of Chagall's paintings then on the territory of Germany and showed them as part of an exhibition entitled Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst).

The painter's response was to attempt to reconcile the two conflicting religions, Judaism and Christianity, through art. In paintings such as Solitude (1933), he depicts the profound sadness and pain felt by the Jewish people in the brewing storm. In The Revolution (1937), Chagall condemns the Bolshevik revolution: a horde of dirty, rough, armed people are marching across the canvas upon another group of people who are peacefully lounging and enjoying their lives. Dying and wounded are strewn beneath the feet of the advancing revolutionaries. In the middle of the canvas, Lenin stands on one hand, using the other to direct his army.

In 1938, Chagall painted one his masterpieces: the White Crucifixion. The center of this painting features Jesus on the cross, while all around the artist added Jewish symbolism that emphasizes Christianity's and Jesus' own roots in Judaism. The left and right edges of the painting feature, respectively, Communists and Nazis, pursuing Jews and destroying their homes. At the foot of the cross, Jews flee in different directions. Together with Picasso's Guernica, the White Crucifixion is one of the most eloquent condemnations of war and hatred of the 20th Century.

The 1930s also saw Chagall doing a lot of traveling. He visited British Palestine, where he attended the opening of the museum of Tel Aviv. He also toured Syria in Egypt, then also subjects of the British Colonial Empire. In Holland, he saw the works of Rembrandt for the first time, and, in Spain, the paintings of El Greco. Like all the old masters, these two had a profound effect on him. He also visited Switzerland, Germany and Poland and traveled throughout France. None of these voyages are really reflected in his works, whose subjects, at all points in the artist's career, derived mostly from the imagination.

The United States

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. In 1940, German tanks rolled into France, crushing the French army in a matter of weeks and occupying the entire northern part of the country. Unlike his French colleagues, for Chagall the war was no abstract concept that he could condemn from the sidelines whilst continuing to work and live as normal. For him, staying on the occupied territories was risking the death camps.

He fled, together with his family and paintings, before the invasion, to the town of Gordes in Provence, in the south of France. When the Vichy puppet-government began to offer greater and great cooperation to the Germans, Chagall realized it was not safe to remain there either. The painter was, in fact, seized by the authorities, but soon released, after pressure from the United States. In the June of 1941, he and his family went to Marseille where got onto a boat for New York. He arrived in New York City on June 23, 1941, only a day after Nazi Germany invaded his distant homeland of Russia in Operation Barbarossa.

In the United States, Chagall initially settled in Preston, Connecticut, a short way outside New York City. Soon, however, the family moved into the city itself. Altogether, Chagall lived in the country for 5 years. He visited Mexico briefly in 1942.

The Second World War felt very personal to Chagall, as someone who had lived, worked and had fond memories of Germany, France and Russia and as a Jew. The unease he felt reflected on his paintings, which become more somber and full of angst than ever. The color red appears in abundance as, for example, in The Three Candles (1938-40), L'Obsession ("The Obsession," 1943), Listening to the Cock (1944) and The Wedding (1944).

In 1944, another tragedy struck the painter. Bella Chagall died of a viral infection. The couple had loved each other strongly from the moment they first met, and had lived happily together as husband and wife for 29 years. For Chagall, this was a heavy blow. More than just the object of his affection, Bella had been his muse and his kindred soul, with the same ironic, light-hearted approach to life, which can be read easily from the texts of her works (Bella was a writer, though she was never published during her lifetime). Her most famous book is The Burning Lights, published in 1947.

For the first time since childhood, Chagall set aside his brush and easel. He would be unable to paint for many long months, almost an entire year.

In 1946, the painter met Virginia Haggard McNeill, with whom he had an affair. This revived his desire to paint and imbued his brush with a fresh vivacity, visible in such works as Cow with Parasol (1947).

Later Life

Marc Chagall returned to Europe in 1946, arriving in Paris. Later that year, Virginia gave birth to a son, David.

In 1947, he finished The Falling Angel (1923-1947), which had been in the works for almost 25 years. Begun only a short time after Chagall's emigration from the Soviet Union, it is, in a way, a unified artistic statement for these years, expanded and built upon as Chagall's art developed. It combines Biblical and Torah lore with the modern world and with Chagall's personal symbolism in a juxtaposition of images that attempt to summarize the many experiences the artist had over the course of his work on the painting.

After the painting was exhibited, a change came over the artist. Chagall, who had spent so much of his life in large cities, socializing in the most forward-thinking of circles, expressed a wish to retreat from public life. In 1950, he moved to the quiet town of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Mediterranean cost of France. Ironically, just as he thought to seclude himself, the Russian painter was rising to the height of his fame.

Chagall's relationship with his lover Virginia McNeill did not last. She could not accept that, for the painter, his art always came first and she second. In 1952, she abandoned him for another. Only a few months later, Chagall married Valentina Brodsky, whom he nicknamed Vava.

Valentina was a forceful but clever woman, with a reformer's drive. The changes that she brought into Chagall's life can be described as sinister: The painter himself described life with her as life "in a prison". Yet, he remained happy throughout it all.

At Vava's insistence, the painter left Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and moved to the small town of Vence, in Provence. Chagall had fond memories of this area from the time he and his family had settled there to evade the Nazis. There, Valentina isolated him from the outside world, using her influence to estrange Ida, Chagall's daughter by Bella, and censoring his correspondence.

Settled into this more sedate pace of life, Chagall worked profusely with Vava's encouragement. Most of his time was spent in the studio, while all day-to-day affairs were conducted by his wife.

Valentina, although of Russian-Jewish origin like Chagall, had converted to Christianity, and it was her wish to force the same change on the painter. She cancelled his subscriptions to Yiddish publications and, at the same time, encouraged him to work on designs for stained-glass windows for churches and cathedrals. Between 1952 and 1985, Chagall designed windows for the Metz Cathedral (1958; 1968), the Zurich Minster (197), the Rheims Cathedral (1974), the All Saints Church in Tudeley, England (1978) and the St. Stephen Cathedral in Main, Germany (1978) among many others.

The painter seems to have largely been amused by these attempts to Christianize him. He was not a devout Jew by any means -- in fact, Orthodox Judaism bans the portrayal of living creatures, and this was a legacy that many Jewish painters had to struggle with. Chagall often inserted Judaic symbolism and references into his later paintings, as if in defiance of his wife and the world. Thus, for example, he added a traditional Jewish wedding scene to his design of the ceiling of the Paris Opera (1963), most likely to spite the Anti-Semitic voices that had opposed giving him the commission. He also designed stained glass windows and murals for many public buildings in Israel.

Chagall traveled a lot in the latter years of his life, making at least one or two trips every year. He visited the Holy Land numerous times and also made trips to Greece, Switzerland, Germany, the United States, England, Denmark, Italy and other places. In 1959, he was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. That same year he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. In 1963, he went to Japan, where there were two large exhibitions in his honor in Tokyo and Kyoto.

In 1973, Chagall visited his homeland, Russia, for the first time since his departure in 1922. He had received a personal invitation from the Soviet Ministry of Culture, and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow held a grand exhibition of his works in his honor. Much mystery and speculation surrounds this episode. Although the Soviet Union would be gone in less than 20 years, in 1973, the Cold War was very much at its height. People whose views did not coincide with the views of the Soviet leadership -- and Chagall's certainly did not -- were not allowed into the country, let alone invited.

For the Soviet Union to organize an exhibition for the painter was unheard of. At the very same time as Chagall had his exhibition, his Russian Avant-Garde colleagues were being censored, interred in psychiatric wards or imprisoned. Just a year after the painter's visit, the unofficial "Bulldozer Exhibition" in Moscow was violently broken up by the authorities.

Against this background, Chagall's visit has led many people in Russia to speculate the painter collaborated in some way with the Soviet government already after World War II, though how exactly he did this remains a mystery. Some point to his second wife Valentina Brodsky and question her sympathies. Whatever the case, it is, to this day, a mystery why the Soviet Union invited Chagall in 1973.

Chagall's work from 1975 to his death in 1985 features much less political and social commentary. Already in his 80s, the painter stopped caring for these things. The last works are simple and eloquently expressive. Notable paintings include: The Fall of Icarus (1975), The Grand Parade (1979-80), Couple on a Red Background (1983).

In the last decade of his life, Chagall was also much less socially active, traveling less and taking up less public decoration projects. A lot of his time was spent in his Vence home, either painting or taking walks in the park. His paintings, however, continued to tour the world without their creator, with numerous exhibitions all around the globe.

In 1977, the painter was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Chagall died in 1985, in the town of Saint-Paul of Vence. Although he remained an adherent of Judaism to his death, his wife Valentina had him buried in a Catholic cemetery, under a gravestone made in the shape of a cross. At the insistence of Ida Chagall, the Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, was recited at the end of the ceremony.


Marc Chagall by Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Taschen, 2006.

Marc Chagall: The Lost Jewish World by Benjamin Harshav. Rizzoli, 2006.

Chagall: A Retrospective by Marc Chagall, Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1995.

Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative (Contraversions: Jews and Other Differen) by Benjamin Harshav. Stanford University Press, 2003.