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A portrait sketch. 7 stories from Marc Chagall's life: espionage, blush, and music

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Marc Chagall lived to be 98 years. In his life, there were three muses, two wives and one eternal love, he lost hundreds of paintings and created thousands of them. The artist conquered Paris and New York, didn’t care about losing Picasso’s friendship and was afraid to see Vitebsk not the way he remembered it from his youth. Episodes of the master’s biography are at times as contradictory as the subjects of his paintings.

Chagall's first acquaintance with the world of visual art occurred only at the age of nine

The future artist saw a fellow student drawing a picture from an illustrated magazine.

— It seemed to me a mirage, a kind of black and white revelation. I asked him how he does that. He replied, "Go and find a book in the library, idiot, choose any picture you like, and just copy it". That’s how I became an artist. I went to the city library, asked for one of the issues of the Niva magazine and brought it home. I chose the portrait of the composer Anton Rubinstein, where, it seemed to me, everything was spinning and swarming — it was filled with very small strokes that conveyed wrinkles on the face of this famous person. I copied that portrait, later — another one, but at that time, art was neither a vocation nor a profession for me. I nailed all these drawings to the wall in our house.

Marc first heard of Vereshchagin and Repin from another friend… The latter, seeing Chagall’s drawings (the ones on the walls), said: "You're a real artist!" That was told by Chagall himself in his book My Life.

Marc, Bella and Ida Chagall. Paris, 1924. Photo: chateau-baux-provence.com
Another facet of this legend is in the memoirs of Bella Chagall. She told about the poverty of the young artist, who painted, having climbed on the stove in the kitchen, trying not to interfere with anyone and not to leave paint all over the place: "And when he came down, his sisters would grab the finished canvas from his hands and wipe the freshly-washed floor with it."
Marc Chagall. L'Anniversaire
L'Anniversaire
1915, 80.8×100.3 cm

Chagall felt like an artist and wanted to look like an artist

In his youth, Marc Chagall used eye shadow and put a blush on his cheeks — this was another argument against his candidacy for Bella Rosenfeld’s husband (the first one was poverty: her family owned three jewellery stores). The mom said to her daughter: "What kind of husband is he — rosy, like a bonny lass!"

Virginia Haggard McNeil, who became the artist’s companion after his beloved Bella died, read Chagall’s memoirs and asked him why he was doing it. "It so happened that painting my own face was almost the same as creating the painting of the face in the mirror," Chagall replied. So why would he use the canvas?

Photo: St. Petersburg, June 1910, 22-year-old Marc Chagall. Source: merrittgallery-renaissancefinearts.com
Due to the large number of self-portraits, he is compared to Rembrandt, Chagall’s favourite artist. The artist was concerned about his appearance. He could work completely naked, as it often happened in the famous hostel — the commune "La Ruche" (or "Beehive") in Paris. But in public, especially over the years, he sought to look like a real bohemian artist.
In 1942, having moved from the dangerous for him France to the USA, Chagall took part in the exhibition Artist in Exile in New York. In the group photo, all the artists look equally serious, and only Chagall (second from the right in the bottom row) stands out from the row of "costumed" characters — or rather, his bright checkered tie does. Photo: moma.org

Over the years, the artist didn’t give ground: one of Chagall’s biographers, Sidney Alexander, wrote about the following situation. In 1971, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the artist was visited by his old friend, American sculptor Chaim Gross. He asked Chagall to pose for him and made a pencil sketch. Chagall immediately added his changes: he took a pencil from Gross and made his hair more voluminous, nose — shorter, and eyes — more eloquent.

Photo: Marc Chagall in 1949. Source: author — Izis Bidermanas, theartstack.com

And one more interesting detail. Chagall loved cornflowers, but, having become successful, he compromised and began to paint more aristocratic gladioli.
  • Lilies and Cornflowers. 1928
  • Newlyweds and Two Bouquets. 1980

Marc Chagall set a high value on his work

German patron and publisher Herwarth Walden noticed the young artist and exhibited three of his works in 1913. Soon, was one of them — the painting Dedicated to Christ — was sold to Bernhard Koehler, the collector from Berlin. Chagall attended the private viewing, giving the credit of trust: after Chagall and Alfred Kubin’s joint exhibition, organized in the spring of 1914, Walden was preparing a personal exhibition of his protégé. He selected works created by Chagall in Paris: a total of 40 paintings and 160 drawings, gouaches, and watercolours.

"In 1914, because of Walden’s exhibition, I went to Berlin, where I spent only a few days. I went to Russia to meet my fiancé Bella. I planned to immediately return with her to Paris, and come to Berlin on our way there to take the money that Walden would get from selling my paintings. But the war began, and the next time I saw Paris and Berlin was only in 1922. During that time, Walden sold all of my paintings, but Germany experienced tremendous inflation, and all the money meant for me, collected since 1914, was not worth a doit," said Chagall in one of his interviews. Walden, as it turned out, arranged exhibitions and sold Chagall’s works. After his return, the artist started a lawsuit, got only a few of the paintings back, but found out the names of collectors who bought his works. But it’s not the most remarkable moment in this sad story: being in Vitebsk, Chagall saw a German prisoner of war on the street, and his first impulse was to ask if he had heard about Herwarth Walden and about the paintings of a certain Chagall, remaining in Berlin.

This was not the only case when the artist lost a large number of his works: when in 1922, after a 10-year hiatus, Chagall arrived in Paris and went to the "Beehive" to find out about the 150 paintings left there, he was greatly disappointed: all works disappeared. However, several paintings remained: the concierge had been using them as roofing for a rabbit hutch.

Photo: Chagall in New York, with his painting Solitude in the background. Author: Arnold Newman

Chagall could make a generous gesture and be stingy at the same time

Varian Fry, who founded The American Relief Center in Marseilles in 1940, secretly sent people from France to the USA under the guise of financial support to those in need. Marc Chagall, whom the Vichy government deprived of citizenship and whose paintings the Nazis demonstrated in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibitions in 1937 (three of them were even burned), received a saving, specially organized official invitation from Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He called artists under the pretence of organizing the exhibition of their works: Picasso, Ernst, Matisse, Man Ray, Kandinsky, Dufy and Klee were also invited.

Photo: Chagall near his work Solitude, 1933. Source: masterworksfineart.com

Marc Chagall. Loneliness
Loneliness
1933, 102×169 cm
Leaving France, Chagall, who was not good at English, kept asking: "Are there any cows in America?" He was interested in the usual plots for painting and did not care about temporal matters: leaving his house, the artist ordered to hide there other refugees rescued by Fry. Years later, in the 1960s, Chagall’s rescuer Varian Fry asked him to provide works for a portfolio of prints created by the artists who were former refugees. Chagall was holding off on sending them, and as a result, the publication came out after Fry’s death and without Chagall’s works.

Chagall did not hesitate to reach out to the powers that be when it came to religion

Born and raised by a Jew, the artist revered the Bible as the most powerful work of art and a huge source of inspiration. And when Chagall settled at the Côte d’Azur with Virginia, he set about trying to paint the church — he was very impressed by the Vence Chapel, designed by Matisse (who elaborated not only all decorations but also the priestal vestments). Perhaps the fact itself got under his skin. Long story short, Chagall tried to contact the representatives of the parish in Vence, offering to paint the walls of the chapels: Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs (the Chapel of the repentant sinners of the brotherhood of White Penitents) and Chapelle du Calvaire (the Calvary chapel). Unfortunately, he did not receive a positive response, just like his friend Arkady Leokum, who reached out to the Temple Emanu-El on 5th Avenue in New York, offering to place Chagall’s works there.

Finally, in the spring of 1950, a Dominican monk, Father Couturier, requested Chagall to decorate the baptistery of the newly built church of Notre Dame de Toute Grâce (Our Lady Full of Grace) on the plateau d’Assy in the Haute-Savoie region of France. By the way, Marie-Alain Couturier, who used to be the pupil of Maurice Denis, got swept up with the idea of creating a new religious aesthetics and eventually took the monastic vows, not forgetting his passion for painting. He considered any "real" art to be religious and had already secured and set in place works by Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Pierre Bonnard, Jean Lurçat, Georges Rouault… Chagall liked the unusual church, but began to doubt: wouldn’t his "apostasy" harm the Jewish people?

Photo: Marc Chagall’s panel in the church of Notre Dame de Toute Grâce. Source: Anneke Hendriks (from Pinterest)

Chagall’s doubts were so serious that he addressed that question to the chief rabbi of France, famous representatives of the Jewish diaspora, and, finally, wrote a letter to Israel’s President Chaim Weizmann: "I asked you for advice, as once our fathers in Russia asked their rabbis when they had uneasy conscience." Then Chagall wrote the rationale for his possible action: on the one hand, he didn’t want to be associated with "non-Jewish" religions, and said that "the very presence of Jewish painting in the Christian church can be good propaganda for our people." Weizmann encouraged the artist to do what his conscience told him was right. As a result, Marc Chagall’s panel appeared in the chapel. Perhaps, back then Marc Chagall made some decisions once and for all: later he made stained glass windows for various churches and cathedrals, no longer asking for the officials' advice.
Chagall and Picasso in the latter’s studio, 1948.

Photo: ginaartonline.com

Chagall became interested in ceramics after Picasso and had half a mind to ferret out his secrets

Marc Chagall became friends with Pablo Picasso in Paris in the 20s, and in 1948 the artist decided to take up pottery and went to the Côte d’Azur. Chagall made pottery in the town of Vence, where he rented a workshop. Picasso lived nearby: since 1946, he had been experimenting with ceramics at the Madoura workshop in Vallauris. Chagall not only visited Picasso, but sometimes even worked with him in the workshop.
Chagall 's first experiments with ceramics were paintings, not plastic forms, like those of Picasso, and it didn’t go without creative jealousy, as well as without jokes. Once, when Chagall left the workshop, Picasso quickly painted a plate "Chagall-style".

David McNeil, son of Marc Chagall and Virginia Haggard-McNeil, tells about some funny details: "When 'we were working" in the workshop, some girl poked out of the door all the time, maybe it really was Paloma, anyway, my father also sent me on his missions: 'Find out what he’s doing there' or 'What clay does he use?'. The girl and I were spies serving two of the greatest artists of our age; two such strong personalities could not help but clash, and these clashes caused beautiful sparks."

Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, 1941. Photo: ginaartonline.com
  • Marc Chagall. King David. 1951
  • Chagall and his son David with the artist's painting in the background Photo: Felix H. Man, szeifertjudit.com

Marc Chagall loved to paint while listening to the music

The violinist on the roof, the angels playing the trumpet… Marc Chagall created an impressive gallery of music-related images from the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier in Paris to theatrical works. Virginia, Chagall’s second life partner, recalled: "He just needed music. There were no long-playing records at that time, and I had to endlessly play the record again on our little gramophone." Later, the radio became quite helpful: Chagall turned on the receiver and enjoyed listening to music. If the work went well, the artist sang; he could even break into the aria from Eugene Onegin.

Chagall admitted his vocal and musical abilities, but also made fun of himself: "Why did I sing? Why did I know that the voice is required not only for bawling and for railing at sisters? One way or another, I had a voice and I could develop it."

The artist recalled: "I was assigned as an assistant to the Cantor, and on holidays the whole synagogue and I myself clearly heard my sonorous soprano. I saw the smiles on faces of the diligently listening congregation and dreamt: — I will be a singer, a Cantor. I will enter the conservatory. In addition, one violinist lived in our precinct. In the afternoons he worked as a sales clerk at the ironmongers, and in the evening he taught the violin. I rasped with difficulty. He beat the measure with his leg and constantly said: 'Perfectly!' I thought, 'I will become a violinist and enter the conservatory.' "


  • Marc Chagall at the Metropolitan Opera (New York) with his work The Triumph of Music in the background. Photo: metopera.org
  • Marc Chagall. The Triumph of Music
Mozart was Chagall’s favourite composer — the artist considered his music "harmonious, spiritual and religious." The master’s works for the opera The Magic Flute performed at the Metropolitan Opera in February 1967, are distinguished by a unique scale.
Marc Chagall. The magic flute
1967, 99.7×64.1 cm
Marc Chagall. The magic flute
1972, 50×38 cm
Marc Chagall. Study for "the Magic flute"
P.S.

"Just as it is impossible to paint a picture without love, in the full sense of the word, so no social structure can be created without love. Therefore, we are all running around in circles."

Marc Chagall

More of Marc Chagall’s thoughts see in the article "Marc Chagall: quotations about love, soul and painting"

Photo: Marc Chagall, 1942. Author: Arnold Newman, from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum

Marc Chagall. The cattle dealer
The cattle dealer
1912, 97×200.5 cm
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Materials used in the article: books Marc Chagall (Jonathan Wilson), My Life with Chagall: Seven Years of Plenty (Virginia Haggard), In the Angel’s Footsteps (David McNeil), Burning Lights (Bella Chagall), and the publication Dialogues on Art: Marc Chagall (Édouard Roditi).

Cover illustration: Marc Chagall with his tapestry The Entry into Jerusalem in the background, eatsweatseek.com