Research series: Russian Art and Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

One of the paintings we discussed in the piece on Natalya Goncharova a couple of weeks ago, was her “Rabbi with Cat” [1912; National Galleries of Scotland] – a fascinating image, that links in closely to Goncharova’s radical desire to portray the peoples of Russia usually left out of art. More than that, the painting recognises the persecution of Jews – both on a community level and on the individual level. In the background of the picture we see two Jewish men carrying sacks on their backs: are they fleeing a pogrom, a violent displacement so regularly experienced by Russian Jews, a history of persecution went back centuries? And in the foreground the rabbi, with a look of sadness in his eyes, holds a cat. It’s a strange image, seemingly symbolic; yet it could be that Goncharova is presenting a singularly personal moment of reflection: the rabbi must flee his home, leaving the pet behind. It’s a moment of sympathy; the artist and the viewer connecting with this individual man having to deal with awful circumstances.

As we’ve seen, Natalya Goncharova found her vision of Russia and Russian people through her experiments in Post-Impressionism and it seems to me that the cross-over of Parisian modernism with the Russian social, political and cultural contexts of post-1905 engendered a remarkable fusion of expression and representation: a liberation for artists in terms both of what they could paint (the subject matter) and the ways in which they could paint (the brilliance of colour, the disregard of formal perspective, the texture of painterly faktura). On or around 1910 and the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, this would both shock the general viewer and provide the catalyst for ever more radical experiment among the avant garde artists.

When it came to representing Jews, however, Goncharova was – for all her sympathy and empathy – looking from the outside.

It was another artist, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who brought aspects of the Russian-Jewish experience to the canvas.

Marc Chagall: Self-Portrait with Brushes [1909; Dusseldorf]

Chagall was born Moische Segal in Vitebsk, a village in the Pale of Settlement (in today’s Belarus), a stronghold of Hassidic Judaism which encouraged “intuitive communion with God and universal love. The Hasidic Jews loved to dance and chant, their hearts fired with ecstasy” writes Jacob Baal-Teshuva, who suggests: “Chagall’s work undoubtedly sought to communicate this love, this joyfulness to the world.”

There is an extensive article on Wikipedia covering Chagall’s life.

My focus here is on the early years, especially ‘on or around 1910’ which is when Chagall left Russia for Paris and when the full impact of Post-Impressionism began influencing his art. It seems important to say though that whilst colour, texture and non-perspectival design had a dramatic impact, Chagall’s vision was never diluted or disrupted. He used these new ideas and techniques to find ways in which he could emphasise his own ideas ever further.

The Model [1910; private; c/o “Chagall” Walther & Metzger, Taschen]

The experience of journeying from Vitebsk to Paris – even by way of a few years studying in St Petersburg – must have been astonishing for the young artist. Despite his precarious day-to-day existence and poverty, he plunged into both modern art and the Old Master paintings on show at the Louvre. “The Model” was one of the first Parisian paintings. The Taschen authors invite us to look at: “the thick application of the paint and the frayed, fibrous juxtaposition of colourful brush-strokes [that] reflect contemporary colour theories. Chagall’s subject is a studio scene, and thus a meditation on his own work, but his model is holding a brush as well and painting a picture herself, which metaphorically creates an atmosphere of prevalent creativity… “

It’s as if Chagall is breathing the very air of art, living in art and painting every moment in every way – even the artist’s model is a painter! The colours are rich, the brush-strokes loaded; the whole scene is given a decorative flatness – one can almost feel Chagall’s excitement: in Paris, the very epicentre of the art world.

Another early Paris painting is at the Tate:

The Green Donkey 1911 Marc Chagall 1887-1985 Presented by Lady Clerk 1947

The Green Donkey [1910; Tate]

The Tate display caption reads:

While living in Paris between 1910 and 1914 Chagall made many works based on nostalgic memories of his Russian homeland. The naïve style and curious subject of this painting reflect the artist’s preoccupation with folk traditions, particularly those of his Jewish heritage. At one time known as ‘Village Scene’, the colouring and strange arrangement of figures evoke a fantastical scene. While this may relate to a folk tale, no specific narrative for the green donkey has been identified.

Whilst his head must have been a whirl of colour, form and modernist experiment, Chagall nevertheless recognised that for him the importance of his art lay in the subject matter that had been central to both his life experience and his painterly vision for years: the village and community, the heritage and cultural imagination of Vitebsk.

This pen and ink drawing was made in Paris [1911; Pompidou Centre]; the artist has his brush and palette – and his mind is full of pictures of Russia.

It’s worth exploring the Pompidou Collection – here – they have many of his sketches, as well as paintings; it’s quite an insight ‘beyond’ the famous pictures and gives us a much fuller record of his experiments.

Sadly the majority of Chagall’s very early work, that painted in Russia before 1910, has been lost – actually stolen by a picture-framer in St Petersburg – but it’s fascinating to look see:

The Dead Man [1908; Pompidou Centre]

It’s not the best reproduction I’m afraid, but it seems to relate an extraordinary episode. A dead man lies in the street, candles have been placed all around him. A woman seems to be calling for help, or wailing; a man behind her looks on. There’s something almost nightmarish – certainly surreal – about it. Could it have happened – an awful event in Vitebsk? Meanwhile another man (Chagall’s uncle) is sitting on a roof playing the violin – an image to which Chagall often turned, indeed there’s a glorious early drawing, again in the Pompidou collection:

The Violinist [1908; Pompidou Centre]

Christie’s notes, with regard to another painting, that, [j]ust as The Fiddler on the Roof was…. derived from tales of life in Hasidic communities, so too Chagall revived that constant presence of the violin in town life. Even Chagall’s own uncle would play, as he himself remembered… ‘uncle is playing the violin… The man who spent the whole days leading the cows into the sheds, tying their legs, and dragging them around, is playing now, playing the rabbi’s song’.” The violinist then recalls both community and familial life for Chagall. And whilst in The Dead Man one might imagine the tune to be mournful, here one hopes it is rather jollier:

The Wedding [1909; Zurich]

A much livelier street scene certainly – the violin player leading the procession – and, again, one that Chagall could have witnessed in Vitebsk. Moreover, it might also reflect his meeting with and love for Bella Rosenfeld (they would marry in 1915).

The Birth [1910; Zurich]

These are all universal experiences, especially birth and death, but from a distinctly Vitebsk perspective, the heritage that gives Chagall his ways of seeing. Notice that even in The Birth the villagers are present – along with a young calf; even the birth of a child is a matter for the village community. Note too the man – presumably (hopefully) the father – hiding between the curtain and the bed!

In Paris:

“Chagall was exhilarated, intoxicated, as he strolled the streets and along the banks of the Seine. Everything about the French capital excited him: the shops, the smell of fresh bread in the morning, the markets with their fresh fruit and vegetables, the wide boulevards, the cafes and restaurants, and above all the Eiffel Tower. Another completely new world that opened up for him was the kaleidoscope of colours and forms in the work of French artists… Yet in the end Chagall remained true to his feelings, to his memories of Vitebsk, and to his Russian homeland” writes Baal-Teshuva, and in the end what we see in the first Paris paintings is a sort of exploration and balancing, a weighing up of new ways of painting with whether they extend and expand what it is that Chagall wishes to express and represent.

Finding himself a studio in La Ruche (which one can still visit) in Montparnasse, Chagall painted through the night, experimenting with Post-Impressionist ideas.

Father [1911] (left) and The Studio [1910] (right) [both Pompidou Centre]

One feels both Matisse and Van Gogh in these paintings, as Chagall explores. He is searching though not for ‘new images’ but to find ways in which he might give greater expression to his own vision – that unique ‘Chagall’ vision – which, in the short term also included experimenting with Cubism.

The Poet (Half Past Three0 [1911, Philadelphia]

As the Museum of Philadelphia notes:

This painting is a portrait of Mazin, a Russian poet who often stopped by Chagall’s studio to drink coffee while his friend painted late into the night. Diagonal shafts of color generate kaleidoscopic energy, and the transparency of forms creates a teasing, ambiguous effect; the portrait detaches from ordinary reality. Mazin’s topsy-turvy head may relate to an idiom Chagall would have known from his childhood spent in the Jewish community of Vitebsk in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. The Yiddish fardreiter kop (turned head) signifies a giddy mental state—an apt description for this image of poetic inspiration.

And for Chagall, an artist, like a poet, has a fardreiter kop – artists see things differently.

Moreover, Chagall was learning fast. There is, for example, a fabulous Parisian rendition of The Wedding:

The Wedding [1910, Pompidou]

The scene has been extended – it’s more like a stage set – into Cubist blocks, and the procession (still led by musicians, including the violinist) has become an extraordinarily colourful Fauvist affair, yet the painting retains its distinct Vitebsk, folk-ish, Jew-ish quality. The Pompidou quotes Chagall saying:

“I painted turning my back on what was in front of me.”

which recalls the poet with his upside down head: Chagall is not looking at the present, but back to the past, to Vitebsk and his experiential inheritance – even in the centre of Paris.

I and the Village [1911; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

Chagall looks into the eyes of the animal – there is a thin white painted line connecting pupil to pupil; the milkmaid, the village houses, a man with a scythe and a woman come to mind; the painter-with-the-turned-head see some of the houses and the woman upside down, cast in a semi-cubist geometric scenario, all brilliant with colour. Memory, folktale and fantasy all play their part, illuminated by Post-Impressionism.

“I and the Village” is recognised as a key work from these Paris years, a sort of manifesto. Chagall was in Paris until 1914, the war and revolution then kept him in Russia until the early 1920s; but those four years working in the French capital engendered his unique vision – the combination of memory and homage, folk-tale and fantasy, his Jewish heritage and a Post-Impressionist liberation of colour, design and expression.

Feast of the Tabernacles [no date; Israel Museum, Jerusalem]



Russian Art & Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

If you are enjoying this research and are able to donate – even occasionally – I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and all best wishes.


We will return to Chagall’s work again in the context of the 1917 Revolution. First though, on 12th June, we turn to another Russian artist working in Europe on or around 1910 – Wassily Kandinsky.


One last Chagall painting, for we should never forget the whimsy his art:

Rain [1911; Guggenheim, Venice]


Chagall’s “My Life” – In his colourful, dreamlike autobiography, written as he was about to leave his homeland for good in 1922, he vividly brings to life the memories and places that fed into his unique work, from his shtetl childhood to revolutionary Russia and Belle Epoque Paris. 

and the authoritative Jacob Baal-Tusheva: Chagall [Taschen; 1998]


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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