This Week in History: Painter of Poetry

On July 7, 1887, in Vitebsk, Belarus, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century was born.

July 7, 2013 19:46
Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall Gallery 1. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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 his life.

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.

As Ziva 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.

In 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 them.

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 heavens.

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 press.

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."


VISIT: Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem to see the stained glass windows and The Marc Chagall Artists’ House in Haifa, named in honor of Chagall.

Related Content

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis
August 28, 2014
Grapevine: September significance


Cookie Settings