Born in Vitebsk, Russia, in 1887. His father was a Jew employed in a herring warehouse and who had ten children. His mother, a small, lively woman, was hard put to keep her large family of eight girls and two boys, and opened it small grocery shop. In his book My Life Chagall writes about his home, describing the vivacity of his sisters and the eccentricity of his uncles -- Neuch, who carried cattle in a jolting trap and played the violin, and Zussy, who was a hairdresser and curled his whiskers. He also tells of his grandfather's house, where animal hides hung like linen. All these were themes that inspired his first drawings and, after a number of transpositions, nourished his paintings. Chagall was apprenticed to a painter named Pen, an honest portraitist of the notables of the town, who showed an interest in Chagall's early works. These were on everyday, familiar subjects: water-carriers, little houses, processions over the hills. Chagall went to St Petersburg, where he went through particularly difficult times. Having failed the entrance examination to the School of Arts and Crafts, he was admitted to the Society for the Protection of the Arts, where he even obtained a grant of ten roubles a month. But the teaching there was nonexistent, and the atmosphere depressing and dreary. But the new school run by Bakst, the theatrical designer, had a growing reputation, increased by its contacts with France and modern art. Chagall, admitted to this studio, received a profound shock. Although the decorative research being conducted there was new to him, he found justification for his previous rebuffs and his instinctive boldness. He arbitrarily renewed his palette, discovered the expressive value of colour as such, and the distortion of line. This is to be seen in his Red Nude, 1908. When Chagall returned to Vitebsk, he had a style of his own, still sombre and heavy but with flashes of light. He used it in scenes that are outside and beyond direct observation, and represent the beginnings of an effort towards synthesis; these are the great themes of life: birth, marriage, death. Chagall made several versions of each, always trying to attain a more complete representation. By his side he now had an extraordinarily intuitive girl, Bella, who fired his imagination and encouraged him in his efforts. Chagall painted her in the Portrait with Black Gloves. When he returned to St Petersburg, with work that was quite distinct from contemporary Russian painting, he gained the patronage and friendship of a Deputy of the Douma, Winawer, who offered him a small grant to enable him to go to Paris.
When he arrived in Paris in 1910 he took up lodgings at La Ruche, and became intimate with the poets Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob and Apollinaire, and the painters La Fresnaye, Delaunay and Modigliani. This was a highly productive period for Chagall, during which he put all the energy that was bubbling up inside him at the service of a vision which integrated the forms of the modern world with the disciplines that stemmed from Fauvism and Cubism. It was in Paris -- to use his own expression -- that he washed his eyes. His ideas, his instinct for geometrical composition in the construction of a picture were confirmed by the experiments he saw going on all about him. But whereas the Cubists sought to interpret objects, such as a pipe or a guitar, in their essences, Chagall applied this methodical organization to describe the elements of reality seen through his imagination or memory. Since, for him, reality always has projections into the past and the future, his work unfolds on several planes. The laws of gravity do not apply to his people and objects. Every detail keeps its full liberty and all its chances of beauty and grace. Within the solid framework created by the artist, concrete elements, becoming memories, move freely at all angles, in all dimensions. Chagall's great canvases of this period ( The Village and I, To Donkeys and Others, The Soldier Drinks, The Drunk, Portrait with Severe Fingers) reveal a pure vision of an absolutely unique inner world, which the artist succeeds in transmitting without spoiling or weakening, giving it an eternal existence, outside time. Almost all his canvases of this period, under (sometimes odd) names supplied by Blaise Cendran, were selected by Apollinaire for the Chagall exhibition arranged in Berlin in 1914. This exhibition, at the Der Sturm Gallery, created a sensation and had a marked impact on the Expressionist movement after the 1914-1918 war.
Chagall had just arrived in Russia when the war broke out. Drafted into a camouflage unit, he remained in St Petersburg, and in 1915 married Bella. During this period he acquired a heightened awareness of the tragic reality of his inner world. Thus, in the Green Rabbi cold, strident colours and broken lines clarify his interpretation. The village, which is an extension of his own individuality, forces itself on him, no longer through the magic of memory but in naked and searing purity. It is as if the infinitely fragile and threatened world of childhood were being offered to him again. Hitherto, he had expressed its sadness, its horror and its poetry with vehemence, in intense lines and colours. Now he perceived it differently. He painted it in delicate pinks, acid grows and transparent blues. He saved only what was essential. In this unreal atmosphere only the painter and his beloved could move, growing with their love, becoming one single, fabulous being, floating through space, above life.
When the Revolution came, Chagall was appointed Commissar for the Fine Arts in the District of Vitebsk by Lunacharsky, whom he knew when the latter was in exile in Paris in 1912. The new regime encouraged the most advanced forms of modern art. Chagall founded an academy, which he opened to all in movements, but a conflict arose between him and Malevitch, who was not so liberal, and Chagall resigned. In Moscow he joined Granowsky, director of the Yiddish Theatre, who commissioned him to paint murals for the auditorium and foyer of the theatre. When he was also asked to do the décors and costumes, he give the actors themselves a new dimension. He transformed them into a gallery of representative types, so complete in their portrayal of the feelings they were supposed to represent, that action became almost redundant. These décors and characters were depicted in enormous compositions on the auditorium walls, so that the audience was completely overwhelmed by a psychic world that enveloped it entirely.
In 1922 Chagall decided to return to France. It was then that Vollard, having noticed one of his paintings, suggested that he do some illustrating. Selecting Gogol Dead Souls, he made eighty-five etchings, which were not published until 1948. In 1927 he illustrated the Fables of La Fontaine with one hundred etchings, published in 1952. At that time, after the severity of Cubism and the explosion of Expressionism, painting felt the need for a period of contemplation. It wanted to please, and tried numerous experiments to that end. Chagall discovered the beauty of flowers and vegetation in the South of France. He painted his first landscapes and lyrically described a new language of flowers. With unerring taste, he avoided insipidity. In 1931, invited to the opening of the Tel Aviv Museum, he went to Palestine and Syria to see the scenes of the Bible which, at Vollard's request, he later illustrated.
Beginning in 1935, profoundly affected by the atmosphere of persecution and war spreading over the world, Chagall introduced dramatic, social and religious elements into his pictures. He painted numerous Crucifixions.
In 1941 he decided to go to the United States, at the invitation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Tragically alert to all that was happening in Europe, Chagall found powerful and renewed inspiration in the misfortunes of his race and the threats to human liberty. In 1944 Bella Chagall died. Moving evocations of the past and the beyond began to appear in his work. He completed the great composition entitled Around Her, which he had begun in 1937, and which became a synthesis of all his favourite themes, grouped around the evocation of Bella. In 1945 Chagall undertook the vast backdrop, curtains and costumes foy Stravinsky ballet The Fire Bird. He finally returned to France in 1947, and settled down at Vence on the Côte d'Azur in 1949. Using some old sketches, he began a series of new paintings in which Parisian landscapes are peopled with fantastic evocations.
Chagall's importance in contemporary art increases daily. In 1941 André Breton, in search of the precursors of Surrealism, stressed the fact that already in 1911 Chagall's work had broken down the barriers of the elements and the laws of physics. Chagall's unique and individual artistic achievement is reflected in many of the new developments of modern painting, for, with a sure instinct, he has applied himself to the problems of our times and given them an answer.