It’s the birthday of Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887), who once said, “My art is perhaps a wild art, a blazing quicksilver, a blue soul flashing on my canvases.” He became famous for paintings that tested reality, like I and the Village (1911) and My Fiancée with Black Gloves (1909). Chagall’s world was filled with nymphs, satyrs, birds, and fish playing musical instruments. People were red, horses green, and cows blue.
Chagall was born in Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk (Belarus). Liozna was built mostly of wood; little of it survived the destruction of World War II. Chagall’s father was a fish merchant, and his mother sold goods out of their home. Whenever Chagall featured a fish motif in his later work, he meant it as a sign of respect for his father. When he was 19, he enrolled in an all-Jewish art school and began his formal art education. In St. Petersburg, he enrolled in The Imperial School for the Protection of New Art.
Chagall found himself in Paris, where he quickly became beloved and joined an artist’s colony known as “The Beehive” (La Ruche). The colony was on the very outskirts of Paris, and Chagall befriended artists like Fernand Léger, Modigliani, and the poet Apollinaire.
When he found himself back in St. Petersburg, he avoided military service by accepting a position as a clerk with the Ministry of War Economy. He painted obsessively and wrote his memoir, My Autobiography (1931). He met Bella Rosenfeld, who became his fiancée, but they had to flee the country because of Nazi persecution. In 1941, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City added Chagall’s name to a list of intellectuals and artists deemed most at risk of Nazi persecution. Because of this list, Chagall and more than a thousand other artists were granted visas to come to America. Chagall and Rosenfeld lived in an apartment off Fifth Avenue for several years. He never quite acclimated to New York City, calling the city “this Babylon,” and he never learned English fluently. In Europe, his work was scrubbed from museums by the Nazi party and often burned.
When Bella died suddenly, he stopped painting for nine months. He said, “All dressed in white or all in black, she has long floated across my canvases, guiding my art. I finish neither painting nor engraving without asking her ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
If you are in New York City, you can see Marc Chagall’s work at the United Nations headquarters. He designed the magnificent stained glass window, called “The Peace Window.” He was also adept at etching, illustrating an edition of Gogol’s novel Dead Souls and spending more than 20 years on 105 plates for an edition of the Bible that was eventually published in 1956. In Chagall’s world, there are no haloes on angels.
Marc Chagall worked in a variety of mediums over his lifetime: clay, oils, pastels, glass, gouache, and etching. He liked to say, “I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment.”