Marc Chagall: A Leading Jewish Artist
Updated: Nov 4
One of the great modernists, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) birthed an astounding collection of artwork in his long life. And above all, he used his art to express a Jewish point of view, one that drank from the long cultural traditions and spiritual depth of his people.
His childhood in the Belarusian village of Liozna continually returned as a source for his work. In that Jewish village, he came to understand the world through color and images. His later education and friendships with the biggest names in art brought him a vast array of tools to express these dreams of his youth.
His artistic life took place mainly in Paris, making this the perfect place to see his work and come to know this legendary artist. Let’s begin getting to know him with a look at his life and his creations.
The Life of Marc Chagall
An artist is born
Growing up near Vitebsk, Belarus — part of the Russian Empire at the time — gave Chagall experiences that would shape him into the preeminent artist he became. But it also presented grave limitations for him.
His parents worked menial jobs and struggled to financially stay afloat. As a boy, his mother had to bribe school officials to let him attend, as most schools in the Russian Empire did not allow Jews to enroll. During his childhood he even witnessed pogroms. Nevertheless, his family remained fiercely observant of their Hasidic Jewish faith.
It was while attending high school (the one his mother had to pay 50 roubles to gain him entry into), that he first saw someone drawing. The act entranced the young Chagall, who began finding pictures in books to copy.
He drew and drew, absorbing himself in developing his technique. And finally in 1906, he attended an arts school by Yehuda Pen — who never charged him for a lesson, as he knew the boy’s family was poor.
Soon, Chagall was off to Saint Petersburg where he studied with the most prestigious Russian artists of the time. There, he fell in love with the daring paintings of Paul Gauguin, and he sat under the learning tree of Léon Bakst who taught him how to be a successful Jewish artist in an antisemitic society. Bakst painted theatre sets, something the young artist would pick up later in life.
In his last year in the city, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld. The two fell deeply in love, but it would be many years until they could finally be together.
Chagall moved to Paris
To be an artist, one must go where great art is being created. And so, in 1910, Chagall made the journey from the snowy lands of Saint Petersburg to the bustling center of European art — Paris, France.
It was during this time that he took in the radical art movements of the time: Surrealism, Fauvism, Cubism, and more. His work shows this ongoing stylistic development, but the subject matter always went back to his childhood in Belarus.
His contemporaries, critics, and the public lauded his early triumphs, which already showed a preternatural ability to mix the ideas of modernism with strong emotion. Rather than go all the way into painterly theories or remain solely in dry realism, Chagall managed to create his own lively balance. In his paintings, modern art found its most human expression.
By 1914, Chagall was ready to marry his beloved Bella Rosenfeld, who was living in Vitebsk. To get his journey started, he took up an offer by a Berlin art dealer for an exhibition. From there he could go on to his hometown and marry Bella before bringing her back to Paris with him. It would be a long adventure, but it could work.
The exhibition was a success, but when he reached Belarus, the First World War broke out. The borders were shut down. There was no escape.
Chagall's life in Russia
After a year in Russia, Chagall was finally able to convince Bella’s parents to allow them to marry.
Bolstered by the optimism of this time, he worked furiously. He also exhibited widely in Russia and became known as a leader of the country’s avant-garde.
When revolution broke out at the end of 1917, Chagall’s brilliant and forward thinking art was taken up by many inside the new Bolshevik government. Thanks to this reputation, he was selected to establish an art school. He chose to place it in his hometown. The Vitebsk Arts College would go on to become the Soviet Union’s most important and prestigious art school. And he was even able to hire his first teacher Yehuda Pen to a position.
Some artists criticized his emphasis on allowing everyone at the college to pursue their own style, so he left for Moscow where he began designing sets for the stage, just as his mentor Bakst had done. The work he did for the State Jewish Chamber Theater would make major waves in the world of theater.
Although he and Bella tried to create a life in Russia, as the Civil War waged on, they yearned for a more comfortable place to call home. And so, in 1923, they left to return to Paris.
Paris, the US, and Back Again to Paris
Back in the city he loved, Chagall once again picked up the brush and got to work. It is during this time that Chagall began his paintings illustrating scenes from The Bible, and those paintings helped reestablish him at the top of the Paris art scene.
But when war broke out yet again, and soon the Nazis invaded their country. The Chagalls found themselves living in Vichy France. Jews were beginning to be rounded up, and the couple knew their lives depended on escape.
Just as they were about to leave using forged US visas, they were captured. Luckily, the journalist Varian Fry saved them by convincing the police to let the Chagalls go to prevent a scandal from engulfing their department.
The couple was off to the United States.
Though they were safe from the Nazis, they were not safe altogether. Bella contracted a viral infection and died in 1944. This devastating loss of the love of his life would last in his heart for a lifetime.
Bella continued to reappear in Chagall’s paintings. Just as she was the subject of his early masterpieces like Bella with White Collar (1917), she would go on to make her presence felt on his canvases long after her death. For instance, in Bouquet by the Window (1959-60), she arrives as a comforting ghost, looking down at Chagall with his second wife Valentina Brodsky.
He returned to Paris after the war and spent the rest of his life here. He continued to paint, always exploring new ways to see the world. And he always returned to his childhood in a Jewish community, in the snowy lands of far away Belarus.
Witness the Art of Marc Chagall
On our tours of Paris, we focus on great Jewish artists and historical figures like Chagall. And this city is the best place to see his grand legacy in person. Let’s look at a couple of his works you can visit on one of our tours.
What are the works of Chagall in Paris?
1- Chagall at the Pompidou
Paris’s grand Centre Pompidou contains one of Chagall’s masterpieces Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1938-39). Here, the married couple of Chagall and Bella ride a cockerel through a strange world. Hovering among them are the memories and moments of both the Russia they left behind and the France they were coming to know as a married couple.
The scene is earnest and imaginative, flowing freely from the artist’s imagination as a fully formed thought. It is metaphorical and charming, yet it also carries a hint of grim foreboding. While this work was being painted, the Nazis were rising in Germany.
2-Ceiling of the Paris Opera Garnier
One of Chagall’s most lasting achievements is his mural on the ceiling of the Paris Opera. Completed in 1964, it is a daring, modernist painting set among the ornate and luxurious Empire style of the opera house.
The colors dance above visitors like petals of an enormous flower. Each section highlights a scene of performing arts, creating a kaleidoscope of dance. It encapsulates his belief that colors must “sing” — as they radiate down through the Paris Opera in harmony with one another.
The Style of Chagall
In these works, we can see how Chagall was able to summarize the entire field of modern art through a mastery of color and an understanding of how to make images come alive for the viewer.
But the greatest influence on his work was always his Jewish upbringing. Those early years in the village when he watched his father wake early every morning to go pray, when he watched the life of his community unfold through the seasons — those created the storehouse of symbols that he would use for the rest of his life.
And with them, he changed the world of art forever.
Visit Paris and See Jewish Art History First-hand
Painters like Marc Chagall have helped make Paris the world capital of art, and the legacy they leave behind here continues to bring us joy. So book a tour with us today! Discover Jewish art history in the most beautiful city in the world.
Flora - Guide in Paris