Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Byelorussia, in 1887 to a poor
Hasidic family. The eldest of nine children, Marc Chagall studied
first in a heder before moving to a secular Russian school, where he
began to display his artistic talent. With his mother's support, and
despite his father's disapproval, Chagall pursued his interest in art,
going to St. Petersburg in 1907 to study art with Leon Bakst.
Influenced by contemporary Russian painting, Chagall's distinctive,
child-like style, often centering on images from his childhood, began
to emerge. From 1910 to 1914, Marc Chagall lived in Paris, and there
absorbed the works of the leading cubist, surrealist, and fauvist
painters. It was during this period that Chagall painted some of his
most famous paintings of the Jewish shtetl or village, and developed
the features that became recognizable trademarks of his art. Strong
and often bright colors portray the world with a dreamlike,
non-realistic simplicity, and the fusion of fantasy, religion, and
nostalgia infuses his work with a joyous quality. Animals, workmen,
lovers, and musicians populate his figures; the "fiddler on the roof"
recurs frequently, often hovering within another scene. Chagall's work
of this period displays the influence of contemporary French painting,
but his style remains independent of any one school of art. He
exhibited regularly in the Salon des Independants.
In 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, Marc Chagall held a
one-man show in Berlin, exhibiting work dominated by Jewish images and
personages. During the war, he resided in Russia, and in 1917,
endorsing the revolution, he was appointed Commissar for Fine Arts in
Vitebsk and then director of the newly established Free Academy of
Art. The Bolshevik authorities, however, frowned upon Chagall's style
of art as too modern, and in 1922, Marc Chagall left Russia, settling
in France one year later. He lived there permanently except for the
years 1941 - 1948 when, fleeing France during World War II, he resided
in the United States. Chagall's horror over the Nazi rise to power is
expressed in works depicting Jewish martyrs and Jewish refugees.
In addition to images of the Hassidic world, Chagall's paintings are
inspired by themes from the Bible. His fascination with the Bible
culminated in a series of over 100 etchings illustrating the Bible,
many of which incorporate elements from Jewish folklore and from
religious life in Vitebsk. Chagall's other illustrations include works
by Gogol, La Fontaine, Y. L. Peretz, and his autobiographical Ma Vie
(1931; My Life 1960) and Chagall by Chagall (1979) Marc Chagall
painted with a variety of media, such as oils, water colors, and
gouaches. His work also expanded to other forms of art, including
ceramics, mosaics, and stained glass. Among his most famous building
decorations are the ceiling of the Opera House in Paris, murals at the
New York Metropolitan Opera, a glass window at the United Nations, and
decorations at the Vatican Israel, which Marc Chagall first visited in
1931 for the opening of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, is likewise endowed
with some of Chagall's work, most notably the twelve stained glass
windows at Hadassah Hospital and wall decorations at the Knesset.
Marc Chagall received many prizes and much recognition for his work.
He was also one of very few artists to exhibit work at the Louvre in
Marc Chagall's involvement with printmaking dates to 1922 and his
return to Berlin after World War I. In the course of trying to recover
the paintings he had left behind with Sturm Gallery's director
Herwarth Walden in 1914, Walter Feilchenfeldt, the director of the
Cassirer Gallery, offered to publish Chagall's then recently completed
autobiography Mein Leben (My Life) to be illustrated with etchings.
Although the book was never published due to translation problems, a
suite of 20 etchings was created by the artist in the medium of
dry-point etching depicting scenes and figures in Chagall's newly
evolved naïve-realistic style. Chagall had never before been
introduced to printmaking techniques and became very enamored with
them, trying his hand with woodcuts and lithography, too. He felt that
in these mediums his narrative flair had found its proper expression.
Chagall wrote in 1960, "Since I started using a pencil, I have sought
for this certain something that could spread like a stream toward
unknown and alluring shores." And again, "When I held a lithographic
stone or a copperplate in my hand I thought I was touching a talisman.
It seemed to me that I could put all my joys and sorrows in
it....Everything that touched my life through the years, births,
deaths, weddings, flowers, animals, birds, the poor workers, my
parents, lovers in the night, the biblical prophets, on the street, at
home, in the temple and in heaven. And as I grew older, the tragedy of
life within us and around us."1 It is in this sense that Chagall did
lithographs, and they have become the stream that carries the message
of his painting into the wide world.
Fortuitously, it was a printmaking commission that brought Marc
Chagall back to Paris in 1923. The famous dealer and editor, Ambroise
Vollard, invited him to do some book illustrations and the artist
requested the book be the Russian author Gogol's Dead Souls. So it was
that Marc Chagall engraved 107 etchings on this theme in the course of
only two years. Although in style they are related to the Mein Leben
dry-points, their technique is obviously more elaborate and refined.
Indicative of how the various creative mediums are related, the artist
found that in the process of developing engraved imagery to illustrate
Gogol he was able to revive his own Russian themes. As he had been
longing to surround himself with the paintings he had lost in the
course of WWI and his sojourn in Russia, he seized upon this
inspiration to reconstruct many of his earlier missing canvasses.
Other themes also evolved that were connected to his more recent
Moscow theatre and mural experience. After his return Chagall viewed
Paris and the French countryside with fresh eyes and this too was
reflected in his paintings. His colors, moderated by the special light
of Provence, became more delicate although still laid on richly and
spontaneously. He began to paint both the French landscape and floral
bouquets accompanied by loving couples, musicians and animals often
depicted around the edges of the composition like poetic
interpolations. These themes would continue to pervade his mature work
through the end of his career.
In 1928-31, Marc Chagall produced a series of black and white etchings
inspired by the La Fontaine's Fables, also published by Vollard, who
became Chagall's mentor and source of inspiration with his concepts
for print projects. In these works the artist employed every
conceivable etching technique in an effort to bestow upon them a
painterly quality. At roughly the same time, Vollard had the vision to
commission from Chagall a series of gouache paintings based on circus
imagery. These two projects stirred the fertile imagination of Marc
Chagall and he spawned amazing imagery that influenced many of his
later works. This was a happy, busy time for Chagall. He was able to
enjoy the lifestyle of a successful artist in the French City of Light
and this was reflected in festive, elegant and romantic compositions
he painted often portraying his wife, Bella and himself. In the early
1930s the economic and political crisis that beset Europe also had its
effect upon Chagall. Nazi persecution of the Jews made the artist more
aware of his own Jewish roots and caused him to long for a more
serious type of artistic expression of deeper significance to the
human condition. Vollard's 1931 commission of 100 etchings depicting
the Bible coincided perfectly with the artist's mood and he responded
immediately by travelling to the Holy Land to absorb the setting of
the Old Testament. There he was moved by the solemn beauty of the area
and its splendid light as he began work on a project and a body of
images that would continue to play a major role in his future work.
This commission marked the beginning of the religious side of the
artist's work. At the outset of WWII which nearly coincided with
Ambroise Vollard's death in an automobile accident, two-thirds of the
plates were completed with most of the balance already started. In
this same period of time Chagall had traveled to Spain in 1934 to
study the works of Velazquez, Goya and El Greco, and in 1937 he
journeyed to Italy to contemplate the works of Titian. From these
pilgrimages he derived the concept of painting on a larger scale, with
a more diverse color palette and a greater depth of meaning.
During WWII Marc Chagall was reluctant to leave his adopted home of
France. In 1940 he moved to Gordes in Provence in the hope of simply
being left alone to paint. That winter he was contacted by Varian Fry
of the American Aid Committee and received the invitation of the
Museum of Modern Art in New York City to come to the United States.
At first he declined but as news reached him of the arrests and
disappearance of friends he decided to accept this invitation. With
Bella, their daughter Ida and as many of his paintings as possible
they made their way to Marseilles then Lisbon finally embarking for
the U.S. They arrived in New York on June 23, 1941 one day after Nazi
troops marched into Russia the home of Chagall's childhood. Cut off
from his normal routine Chagall devoted himself to his painting at
first in New York City, but as soon as possible he and his family
relocated to the countryside. There tragically his beloved wife Bella
took ill with pneumonia and died leaving Marc and Ida alone and
After Bella's death, in an effort to proceed with his work, Chagall
began to produce his first color lithographs Four Tales from The
Arabian Nights. From the 1,001 stories in The Arabian Nights, Chagall
chose just a few which deal with themes of lost love, reunion and
death creating a total of 13 compositions. The combination of these
exotic tales of fantasy and the vivid color and imagery of Marc
Chagall proved to be an intoxicating blend. Although he had created
black and white lithographs earlier in France, Chagall, who is widely
considered to be among the greatest colorists of all time, had never
tried his hand at color lithography. The spectacular results published
in 1948 confirm the artist's affinity for the medium. Chagall's Four
Tales from The Arabian Nights are considered to be the finest examples
of color lithography produced in the United States prior to 1950, and
he was honored in 1948 by being awarded the graphic prize of the
Following a comprehensive exhibition of his work at the Musee National
d'Art Moderne, Paris in the spring of 1946, Chagall moved permanently
back to France in 1948 settling in Vence near Nice and the Cote d'Azur
by 1950. Soon after his return Chagall met with Teriade (1897-1983)
the editor of Verve and heir to Vollard, who began to publish in rapid
succession the Chagall projects remaining in Vollard's estate: Dead
Souls in 1948, La Fontaine's Fables in 1952, The Bible (the balance of
which had been completed between 1952-56) in 1957. Most significantly
of all in 1952 as the artist was about to remarry, Teriade
commissioned Chagall to illustrate the ancient pastoral romance
Daphnis and Chloe. With Daphnis and Chloe (M. 308-349) Marc Chagall
embarked upon a new cycle of life and work. Together with his new
bride, Vava, and literally on their honeymoon, he traveled for the
first time in his life to Greece to seek inspiration for this
adventurous tale. In Delphi, Athens and on the island of Poros, Marc
and Vava fell in love with Greece and the story of Daphnis and Chloe.
At that time and in a series of later visits to Greece, Chagall
created a series of drawings and gouaches which formed the basis for
the 42 color lithographs which comprise the Daphnis and Chloe suite.
As published by Teriade in 1961 in the deluxe edition of only 60 they
are universally accepted as the artist's most important original
prints (it should be noted that an unsigned book state of 250 also
exists). These remarkable works were engraved by Marc Chagall under
the watchful eye of the master printer Charles Sorlier and printed on
the presses of the incomparable Mourlot workshop in Paris between 1957
and 1960. Chagall's color lithographs for Daphnis and Chloe set a new
standard for excellence in this medium that may never be equaled.
Abandoning the traditional practice of first producing a black stone
or drawing stone which outlines most of the composition and reduces
the subsequent color plates to merely adding detail, Chagall chose to
create lithograph compositions completely from pure color just as he
would a painting. In 1958 Chagall was commissioned by the Paris Opera
to create set designs and costumes for the ballet Daphnis and Chloe by
Ravel, thereby bringing to life this classic story and paralleling his
original prints on the same theme. His work with the ballet and its
dancers clearly influenced the grace and beauty of the movement of the
figures portrayed in the lithographs as well.
Henceforth, Chagall continued to be fascinated with color lithography
as a printmaking medium and retained the Mourlot atelier and
especially Charles Sorlier as his creative collaborators. Sorlier
advised him on all his future color lithograph projects and supervised
their printing at Mourlot. "Marc Chagall fabricated a mystical world
of lovers, musicians and artists in his work. He chose lithography as
a print medium that could offer him almost unlimited painterly freedom
to explore this world. Since lithography is a technique where the
artist can work directly on the printing plate or lithostone, the
resultant prints convey the spontaneity of his brushstrokes and drawn
lines. Lithography also allowed Chagall to work in lush color, which
he viewed as his métier, and for which he has become renowned.
Chagall's lithographs are now among the most collected art works of
the 20th century."
Following his triumphant Daphnis and Chloe suite, Chagall produced
such individual masterpieces in color lithography as The Bay of Angels
(M. 350) and Quai de la Tournelle (M. 351). In 1962, encouraged by
Teriade, he began work on another project that was first conceived by
Ambroise Vollard, The Circus suite (M. 490-527). Vollard had been an
enthusiastic fan of the circus and realized the potential of its
lights, costumes and performers as stimulus for Chagall imagery. He
had therefore, as we have already noted, commissioned the artist to
paint a series of circus gouaches in the late 1920s. Employing these
gouaches as a point of departure, Chagall now engraved 23 masterful
color lithographs and 15 lyrical black and white lithographs on the
circus theme. The color examples alone were published in 1967 by
Teriade in a deluxe edition of only 24 and three artist's proofs, and
rank with the Daphnis and Chloe color lithographs as the artist's
finest and most collectable. Chagall composed his own text for the
book state of these works which were published along with the black
and white examples as a true artist's book in an unsigned edition of
250. Chagall's colorful circus imagery is pure delight and speaks to
the child within us all, but upon closer examination the viewer
discovers in addition to the clowns, acrobats and equestrians
unexpected but typical Chagall iconography such as his bridal couples,
musicians and his ubiquitous chickens and goats which add to the fun.
Yet for the artist the circus was a somewhat melancholy visual
metaphor for life. "For me the circus is a magic spectacle which
passes by like the affairs of the world and melts. There is an
unsettling and a profound circus."
Even with the enormous success of the color lithography he had already
achieved Marc Chagall was still eager to experiment with the
possibilities and limitations of this printmaking medium. Unusual
formatted tableaux such as the oval shaped The Golden Age (M. 542) and
grand scale subjects like The Magician of Paris II of the late 1960s
viewed in this exhibition are superb examples that added new
excitement to is printmaking oeuvre. For his final body of lithography
base upon a single theme Chagall chose Homer's Odyssey (M. 749-830)
executing 82 lithographs, 43 of them in color based upon this epic.
The Odyssey was published by Mourlot in two volumes in the mid-1970s.
Marc Chagall's enthusiasm for color lithography was such that in 1980
Aime Maeght was able to induce the artist, then 93 years old, to
engrave his largest color lithographs ever (M. 971-984) simply by
informing him that he had obtained some large sized lithostones.
Maeght had hoped that the artist would be sufficiently interested to
engrave one or two new compositions; instead Chagall summoned his
energy and talent to engrave 13 outstanding color lithographs
including: Couple at Dusk (M. 972), In the Sky of the Opera (M. 973),
The Parade (M. 981) and Red Maternity (M. 984) each measuring on
average 95 x 60 cm. (37 5/8 x 23 7/8 inches). Together they constitute
a complete compendium of his most recognizable imagery including
loving couples, floral bouquets, floating figures, circus performers
and the familiar landscapes of Paris, St. Paul de Vence and Vitebsk
all presented in a monumental size.
Marc Chagall was 63 years old when he first came to Mourlot in 1950 to
study in earnest the technique of color lithography with Charles
Sorlier. Already a world famous artist with nothing to prove, Chagall
nevertheless worked tirelessly to master the many nuances and
subtleties of this demanding medium for his own satisfaction. As the
majority of his works in lithography were created late in his career
the character of the work produced took on that of a dialogue between
the artist and his earlier inventions, giving his lithographs the
advantage of drawing upon a rich and personal iconography developed
over a lifetime. It is not surprising therefore that these color
lithographs are so endearing to those of us whose heart and soul are
touched by the message of Marc Chagall. Marc Chagall died on March
28th, 1985, in Saint-Paul Russia.
James Healy, San Francisco 2002
All colors are the friends of their neighbors and
the lovers of their opposites.
Great art picks up where nature ends.
I adore the theater and I am a painter. I think
the two are made for a marriage of love. I will give all my soul
to prove this once more.
I work in whatever medium likes me at the
If I create from the heart, nearly everything
works; if from the head, almost nothing.
In our life there is a single color, as on an
artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It
is the color of love.
Only love interests me, and I am only in
contact with things that revolve around love.
The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of
keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil
he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long
vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to
The fingers must be educated, the thumb is born
When I am finishing a picture, I hold some
God-made object up to it - a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree
or my hand - as a final test. If the painting stands up beside a
thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there's a
clash between the two, it's bad art.
Work isn't to make money; you work to justify
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