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"No work was ever so resolutely magical. Its splendid prismatic colours sweep away and transfigure the torment of today, and at the same time preserve the age-old spirit of ingenuity in expressing everything which proclaims the pleasure principle, flowers and expressions of love."
- Ambroise Vollard on Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Belorussia in 1887, the eldest of nine in a large, impoverished Hasidic family. In 1906, with his mother's encouragement, he studied with a local accomplished Jewish painter, Jehuda Pen. The following year, he departed for St-Petersburg with a fellow art student, studying at various art schools, most importantly at an experimental school directed by theatre designer Léon Bakst who introduced him to many of the modern ideas emanating from France.
Having developed a growing circle of liberal Jewish patrons and funded by a lawyer friend, Chagall travelled to Paris in 1910 where he took a studio and haunted the Louvre while taking art classes. Penetrating into what he referred to as the "heart of modern French painting" through friendships with many of the cutting-edge artists of the day, Chagall managed to synthesize, in his own unique way, the colour of the Fauves and the bold spatial distortions of the Cubists with a very personalized, lyrical imagery rooted in the folklore of his native Russia.
In 1914, his first solo exhibition, organized in Berlin by Hewarth Walden (poet, critic and founder of the German avant-garde periodical Der Sturm) received considerable critical acclaim. From Berlin, Chagall travelled back to Russia where he stayed when war broke out, marrying Bella Rosenfeld whom he had met in 1909. His betrothal, marriage and the birth of his daughter, Ida, in 1916 inspired some of his finest paintings, making him a major artist whose work was sought after by prominent Russian collectors.
After the Russian Revolution, he was made Commissar of the Arts in Vitebsk. At first, he embraced the new egalitarian order, which undertook his proposals for a free Academy of Fine Arts and a new museum. But by 1920, after a falling out with the Suprematists and disappointed in the evolution of cultural politics, he left for Moscow where he devoted himself to stage and theatre design. Frustrated by the increasingly totalitarian regime, Chagall left Russia for Berlin in 1922 and finally returned to Paris a year later at the behest of Ambroise Vollard.
In 1937, Marc and Bella Chagall became French citizens. After the outbreak of the second World War, he and his family went to the U.S. at the invitation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941. Though productive, the seven years in America were profoundly marked by the death of his beloved wife in 1944. Returning to France in 1948, he finally settled a couple of years later in Vence, remarrying in 1952. He continued experimenting with many new media including ceramics, mosaics and stained glass. After a prodigious career, Chagall died at 97 in his home at St-Paul-de-Vence in March 1985.
His highly personal, poetic style defies simple classification with an "ism". The range of his subject matter is broad, encompassing both the sacred and the profane, frequently including his bestiary of fantastical animals, and always rendered in lavishly sumptuous colour. Picasso declared that Marc Chagall was one of the greatest colourists of the 20th century.