On July 7, 1887, in Vitebsk, Belarus,
one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century was born. Marc – born
Moishe - Chagall was a French painter, printmaker and designer, seemingly able
to paint poetry with wild and whimsical dream-like images of flying lovers, blue cows and green fiddlers on roofs.
Chagall was raised in a devoutly Jewish household as the eldest of nine
children. His father, Khatskel-Mordechai Shagal, worked in a fish warehouse,
while his mother, Feiga- Ita Chernina, ran a small grocery store. Both adhered
to Hasidic Jewish religious beliefs, which forbade graphic representation of
anything created by God. Thus Chagall grew up in a home devoid of images. Still,
he pestered his mother until she took him to an art school run by a local
portraitist. Chagall, in his late teens, was the only student who used the vivid
color violet, according to one biography.
“When Matisse dies," Pablo Picasso
famously remarked in the 1950s, "Chagall will be the only painter left who
understands what color really is."
The connection to his heritage and early
childhood years were expressed in many of his artworks, including early works
such as "The Dead Man" which depicts a violinist on a roof – a reoccurring image
for the artist, eventually providing the title of the hit musical more than four
decades later. This early period is considered Chagall's strongest,
artistically, and the style he developed would remain with him for the rest of
Yet for all his reminiscing about Vitebsk, Chagall found it
stifling—“a strange town, an unhappy town, a boring town,” he called it in his
memoirs. Reflecting, his earliest drawings depicted his hometown Vitebsk as a
shtetl, reflecting the simple Jewish life of his childhood there.
Maisels points out, much of the details in his works are whimsical visual
translations of Yiddish expressions – Chagall's first and most fluent language –
other than the words of his painting.
A four-year stint in Paris saw
Chagall embrace the early symptoms of modernism of Cubism and Fauvism. Returning
to Vitebsk in 1914 with the intention of staying only briefly, Chagall was
trapped by the outbreak of World War I and in 1917, Chagall supported the
Russian Revolution, seeing the new regime as a form of freedom for Jews.
1920, Chagall moved to Moscow, where he painted panels for the State Jewish
Chamber Theater. He was to return to Paris in 1923, although on his way he
stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten
years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover
In February 1931 Marc Chagall and his family visited Palestine. There the painter
discovered the land of his ancestors and perceived the center of his faith.
According to Baal-Teshuva, Chagall was "impressed by the pioneering spirit of the people in the kibbutzim and deeply moved by the Wailing Wall and the other holy places."
"And in the East [Palestine] I found unexpectedly the Bible and a part of my very being," Chagall said of his travels.
After returning to Paris and witnessing the onslaught
of Nazi persecute in the 1930s, Chagall's paintings became political statements
on canvas. His "White Crucifixion" portrayed Christ with a tallit covering his
loins, and in the painting, a synagogue is in flames, a fleeing Jew clutching a
Torah to his breast and ghost-like figures hovering, suffering and lost in the
Not long after, in 1941, Chagall and his wife left for the
United States, settling in New York. Baal-Teshuva writes that Chagall reveled in
going out in Jewish areas, feeling at home with the Jewish foods and Yiddish
Chagall's work became increasingly more recognized over the coming
decades, producing large murals, stained glass windows, mosaics and tapestries.
In addition to this, Chagall produced lithographs, etchings, sculptures, and
ceramics. In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the
majestic Paris Opera. Many objected to a Russian Jew painting a French national
monument, but the end result silenced the majority of the critics with its
spectacular floating creation of angels, lovers, animals and Parisian monuments.
He famously designed stained-glass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah
Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem.
In 1967, Charles Marq of the Atelier Simon in Reims,
France, arrived in Jerusalem to dismantle the 12 stained glass windows Chagall
created for Hadassah, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported, in the wake of the
war. Mortimer Jacobson, President of Hadassah, who said that the windows
constitute “one of the world’s great art treasures and they must be protected in
this time of crisis.”
The windows, depicting the 12 tribes of Israel,
have been housed in the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical
Center in the Judean Hills since 1962. Each window is 11 feet tall and eight
feet wide, and the glass is dotted with floating fish, flowers, and Jewish
symbols. They were installed following exhibition in Paris and New York. The
windows were originally assembled at the Atelier Simon, where Chagall proceeded
to paint, etch and scratch each pane of glass.
"All the time I was
working, I felt my mother and father looking over my shoulder; and behind them
were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews — of yesterday and a thousand years
ago," Chagall said upon completing the installation.
On February 6 1962,
at the dedication ceremony, he added: "This is my modest gift to the Jewish
people who have always dreamt of biblical love, friendship and of peace among
all peoples. This is my gift to that people which lived here thousands of years
ago among the other Semitic people."
Hospital, Ein Kerem to see the stained glass windows and The Marc Chagall
Artists’ House in Haifa, named in honor of Chagall.