Marc Chagall

According to renowned historians and scholars, pieces of art are arepresentation of the artist’s life, time and psychologicalmakeup.1As such, the work of famous artists should not be viewed just by facevalue. Given this reason, scholars and theoreticians have putremarkable effort to study the works of art so as to find politicalmeanings, social implications and psychological influences which mayor may not have been implicit in the artist’s creation.Additionally, historians and scholars have held the argument that artfrom the past holds clues about the artists’ impression of the lifeby then.2As such, by looking into the work of a given artist, the symbolism,colors and materials that were used to create the pieces gives cluesabout the prevailing culture in which they were produced. Forinstance, Ferguson and Ferguson say that symbols of chastity andsymbolism can be used to give clues about values that were ofimportance during those periods.

An analysis of a piece of art can prove different perspective andgive a well-rounded way of looking at people and events from the timethat it was created. Analyzing artworks therefore gives anopportunity to visualize in detail the past social, economic andpolitical experiences.3Therefore, in general, studying art and artists from the past is animportant activity for historical and cultural view of any society,and the world at large. These studies therefore help to reveal theimportance of elements such as religion, politics and philosophy ofthe individuals who were living at the time of the artists. Thispaper is a study of the life and work of , who was aRussian-French artist. Specifically, the paper looks at how hiscareer was shaped by people and events around him, and specificallyanalyzing one of his most famous pieces, Calvary. Thisparticular piece of art was created in the year 1912.4

Earlylife and works

was born in 1887 in Belarus. 5He was raised in a devoutly Jewish environment. Chagall’s parentsraised him alongside eight other children. He was born in a period ofgreat change in the world, towards the end of the 19thcentury.6During this period, the European economy had been influenced by theindustrial revolution in the West, and people were no longer livingin the agrarian age.7Schools had been built and learning was encouraged amongst the youngpeople. Additionally, there was a great sense of identification withreligion amongst families. Catholic was the dominant religion inEurope at the time.8However, as mentioned earlier, Chagall’s family brought him up in aJewish setting.

From an early age, his artistic mind was taken note of by his parentsand peers.9Chagall was observed to have a unique taste of art, and his parentswere generally supportive of his dream of becoming a great artist.His father, perhaps one of his first mentors, worked in a fishwarehouse, while his mother ran a small retail shop.10He attended school where he was taught in Russian. It was at schoolwhere Chagall learnt about the basic of drawing. He later went on tostudy painting in St. Petersburg. During this time, Russia was underthe reign of Tsar Nicholas II, who repressed political oppositionfrom the center and the far left.11Given this, artists were limited on giving their political opinionthrough their art. Most of the school going children of Chagall’sage experienced poverty of the worst levels ever witnessed in thecountry at that time. Due to this, it was quite challenging for thestudents to develop their respective talents. It was lucky forChagall to meet influential people that helped shape his talent. Hisparent’s decision to send him to study in St. Petersburg was one ofthe moves that set the young artist’s career on the wheels.

At St. Petersburg, Chagall met one of his career’s most influentialpeople, Leon Bakst.12Bakst was one of Chagall’s art teachers. He was born in as LevSamoilovich Rosenberg, but changed his name to sound less Jewish.13This is an example of how the early artist’s lives and works wereinfluenced by religion. Given his teacher’s serious take onreligion, Chagall’s later life as an artist was equally influencedby such. Chagall would later create a famous painting, A JewishCrucifixion, which was motivated by Bakst’s expulsion from St.Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts.14The reason for Bakst’s expulsion was a piece known as Crowd ofLithuanian Ghetto Jews, which featured Madonna weeping over JesusChrist. Bakst had done this to emphasize how much Jesus was Jewish.This perhaps is one of the reasons Chagall was so fond of producingmagnificent religious pieces, which have for over time beencharacterized with heavy sense of religious recognition. Wharton saysthat his Jewish identity was crucial to his career throughout hiscareer.15Perhaps this is the reason that many historians and scholars havedescribed his work as an attempt to reconcile his old Jewishtraditions with modern artistic styles. However, according to somehistorians, it was unlikely that Bakst would have encouraged Chagallto use religious content in his work, as he rarely drew upon thetheme of religion in his work. He also did not explicitly rely onJewish religion to express himself, as some of his works occasionallydrew on Christian themes. This helped to appeal to his taste forallegory. At that time, politics controlled much of the country’sreligion, and artists were not spared for going against the order ofthe day.

One of his earliest paintings was Young Girl on a Sofa. Theart piece was completed in 1907.16This was a portrait of his sister. It marked the beginning ofevolution of a great artist’s style. After this, he began makingsignificant improvements on his style and themes. It was at this erathat he fashioned pieces like Red Nude Standing Up (1908), Self–Portrait with Brushes (1909) and Birth (1910).17Just before creating Birth, Chagall met with Bella Rosenfeld,a 14 year old daughter on a Jeweler. Notwithstanding the noteworthyage variance between the two, Chagall fell in love with herimmediately.

Bella is one of the people who greatly influenced Chagall’s lifeand art, and was in turn influenced by his artistry. In hisautobiography, Chagall described their first meeting. He wrote “hersilence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everythingabout my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see toughme”.18At the same time, in her memoirs, Bella described their love. Shewrote this about their first meeting: “I was surprised at his eyes,they were as blue as the sky…I’m lowering my eyes. Nobody issaying anything. We both feel our hearts beating.”19In the period spanning through the next years, it was recognized thatBella’s love influenced Chagall’s artistic thinking. In one ofthe sketches that were discovered by historians, Chagall had drawnBella in sketches depicting a patterned dress with a bowl of fruit.Another one showed her drawn with dark circles around her eyes.20It was thought to be Chagall’s expression of her final illness justbefore she died. Bella and Chagall appeared in a number of othernotebooks that were discovered later. Conceivably one of the greatestmoving description was one where Chagall, reaching out to touch thecanvas and one hand on his heart, appeared with a blue face and adepressed expression. These were some of the artistic works thatcaptured Chagall’s artistic and vivid imagination, driven by hislife’s love.


During the times of Chagall, Paris was considered as the Mecca ofartists.21In 1910, with the help of Maxim Winawe, a lawyer, Chagall visited thecity. It was the dream of all aspiring artists to go there and have apalate of what was ensuing on in the domain of art. However, hisinitial impression of the city was not favorable. In this place, hebumped into a few of other Russian painters like Wassily Kandisky.Wassily was one of the greatest Russian painters, whose main stylewas expressionism. He was the founder of an art movement known as DerBlaue Reiter. This was an influential group for the expressionismstyle of art, which went on to become very popular. While in Paris,Chagall met with a number of other artists who greatly influenced hisstyle. They included Chaim Soutine, Ossip Zadkine, Pablo Picasso andGeorge Brasque.22These were some of the people who helped him to find his taste of artin Paris. So as to understand the concepts that being used by theday’s leading artists, Chagall set out to study about artisticinnovations of the century that had passed.23It was during this time that he studied impressionism.


Impressionism was first created by artists such as Claude Monet andCamille Picasso in the second half of the 19th century.24The impressionists created painting scenes of everyday life,including country side and park scenes. The impressionist artistsused heavy hues and visible brushstrokes to create transient effects,while they played with light on the canvas.25This new artistic style was mainly celebrated because it introducednever seen before beauty into art, and created an impact on themodern art techniques.26The first impressionists were understood to be representing a broadspectrum of complex social and political forces that transformed artin Europe. Perhaps one of the most significant features aboutimpressionism is that it broke a number of basic rules of academicpainting.27The emergence of this style was soon to be followed by analogousmovements in other media platforms. He went on to createimpressionist pieces, applying pure color to the canvas in individualstrokes. Chagall was particularly clever with the colors, avoidingmixing them on his pallets. He left it to the viewer of the piece tomix them, creating the magic in the art. The resulting pieces wereones that brought the canvas to life, with a background andatmosphere that was almost livelier than the real thing. Hisimpressionist paintings inspired other artists after time. Despitethe fact that he was a student of the style, his ideas were amongthose that fired it to the heights that it reached.

Paris: Cubism and Fauvism

In Paris, Chagall learnt two other artistic styles that he used in anumber of his legendary pieces. The first one was cubism. This wasone of the most influential visual arts style in the early 1900s.28It was created by famous artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Brasque.29The concept did not apply the basic rules of inherited art. It didnot adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, nor did it notapply modeling. Instead, the creators of this style concentrated ontwo-dimensionality. In order to achieve this, they reduced theobjects on the canvas into two geometric forms, and aligned them withshadows30.This created an artistic space in between the distinct images. Up to1910, the subject of the picture in the style was visible. Despitethe fact that the images were dissected, they were later reassembledto resemble the real-life objects that were being put on canvas. Thecreators of the style abstracted their work by overlapping planes,often combining representational objects to create the image.31Later on, the liberating formal concepts of the art had far reachingconsequences for art.

The second style that he learnt was fauvism. This style, whichemerged in the twentieth century, was inspired by artist such as VanGogh and Georges Seurat.32Fauvism was a radical style of separating color form its perspectiveand letting it to exist on the canvas as an independent element. Bydoing this, the color could exist on within the artworkindependently, yet creating a mood without necessarily having to beconcordant with the real world. Secondly, fauvism’s centralartistic concern was that it balanced composition.33Within the canvas, each element played a unique and separate role.The result was a unified and strong artistic impression. Perhaps mostsignificantly, fauvism valued the artist’s impression. It let theartist to express their direct experience of the subjects andemotions34.They however did not put emphasis on academic theory, and allelements of the painting were pure reflection of the artist’sinnermost creativity.

In 1911, Chagall created I and the Village.35.This piece was a combination of Cubist and Fauvist influences onhis canvas. However, one of the distinguishing facts about his stylewas that it was far more playful than that of the creatorsthemselves, such as Picasso and Matiss. His creation was more liberaland used more decorative elements, which helped characterize most ofhis works. This art work was a sign of the approach that would makeChagall famous later on. In this piece, he created a pastoralparadise out of the Russian countryside36.In this piece, he depicted a fairy-tale in which a cow dreamt about acouple, farm owners in the country side, working in the field. At theheart of this piece was abstraction, which Chagall had mastered. Inthe work, there are a number of soft overlapping images that continueinto space. The significance of the painting lies on the elements ofEuropean folktales and culture. This piece is credited to theartist’s childhood memories. A scholar described the fanciful styleas “a cubist fairy tale”.37The painting evoked his memories of his native Hasidic community.Back in those times, people and animals live together, in mutualdependence. The image’s geometrics were inspired by broken planesof Cubism.38He played with lines, angles and other geometric shapes, which werehis childhood hobby. In Paris, Chagall relived the experiences of hischildhood, which were important in shaping his imagination.


Chagall painted Calvary during the first period in Paris, justbefore the commencement of the First World War. The canvas is aportrayal of Jesus on the cross. It used styles of Russianiconoclastic religious paintings. Additionally, Chagall mixed theconcepts and elements of the two styles that he had learnt, Cubismand Fauvism.39The piece was not a political one. Later on, Chagall said that hejust wanted to depict Jesus on the cross an innocent child.40Later on in his career, Chagall went back to drawing Jesus. Despitethe fact that he was Jewish, Chagall strongly identified with Jesus,who he regarded as his religious mentor. Jesus had some kind ofoutsider and revolutionary role in regards to the society during histime. A number of historians have noted that Chagall too was animportant figure in the Russian uprising mid 20th century.41In paintings such as White Crucifixion and The crucified,Chagall maintained his religious theme throughout his career.42

The painting Calvary was executed in Chagall’s intenseimagination. It also had a strong touch of Cubism in it. According toJohn, a work of art is considered to be Cubist when it is twodimensional, and has two or more perspectives on one object.43Additionally, when looked at in an overall perspective, there isdistinct arbitrary shading between the shapes. This gave the piece anunrealistic sense of depth. In the piece Calvary, this stylewas particularly evident in the ladder. Almost all other parts of thepiece were divided into cubist shapes and circles. However, there wasan exception of one figure on the right, which was that of a personwalking away from the cross. The figure, with its head turned back tolook into the foreground, was not drawn in a similar chic as therest. However, there are high chances that this figure is arepresentation of a Jewish male of Hasidic origin. This was anexample of how Chagall drew heavily on his birthplace to createfigures in his famous paintings.

The figure of the man is believed to be a representation of a maleadult from his hometown, Vitebsk.44At the foot of the crucified Jesus are figures which are believed tobe of his parents, Mary and Joseph. This setting was inspired by theepic crucifixion episode of Jesus Christ. However, there are a fewartistic modifications that Chagall made on the figure of Jesus. Hedrew Jesus as a newborn child, perhaps to demonstrate his innocenceat the hands of his cruel adversaries. Chagall used this opportunityto demonstrate the tense situation between revolutionaries andoppressors. This brings in elements of politics intertwined withreligion. To add an artistic effect to the figure of Jesus, Chagallpainted Jesus in light shades of blue. He added a symbol of acloth-like diaper, as per the epic story of crucifixion tells.

At first sight, it is quite impossible for the viewer to notice thedissecting lines. Chagall used these lines to create depth. Thishelps to lead the viewer’s eye throughout the canvas, connectingthe figures and the background. However, the figure of Jesus Christon the cross is the most eye-catching figure on the Canvas. Theartist used lines to dissect Jesus’ body to create a threedimensional figure. The eyes are led downwards to the outstretchedleft leg, highlighting the Cubist architecture of artistry. Next toJesus is a bearded male who is looking up to him. The same style isused to create outstretched hands, creating a mood of sympathy. Theman’s costume is decorated with colors and lines which blend intothe background. Right next to the man is a mother figure. She iswearing a dress that seems more modern than the 19thcentury fashion. Chagall used lines to create folds on the figure’sfabric. Right behind her in the background is a boat with a sailor init. The sailor seems to be looking far to the Hasidic man, carrying aladder and disappearing to the right of the frame. On this figure,Chagall also used color and light to create a bent ladder. The bentladder is directed towards Jesus’ figure on the cross. Chagallmostly used warm colors in the painting, except for the right upperside. In all these figures, the artist created a scalene triangle ofmovement by clever use of lines. Some of these lines are easily seen,while some require a more keen and artistic eye to note.

Scanning through the piece, the landscape and the figures in it seemto be flat. This is characteristic of the cubist style. However,Chagall’s use of line and shape creates the different shapesobserved. Despite the fact that they appear as to be flat, the use oflines is used to create a three dimensional feel. The foreground isbrought to reality by use of forms. The middle ground and thebackground are divided by planes of space which interact with thefigures. This painting seems like a collage of three dimensionalobjects that have been placed together to create a scene. However,there is still allowance for the images to be viewed from all sides.

The painting is a hallmark of Chagall’s expert use ofcolor. The artist used primary colors to create the landscape. Redwas used to create the ground and the foreground, blue for thebackground and the sky, and yellow for reflections on the water.These three basic colors are used to modify the geometric shapesthroughout the painting. Chagall, also known for his liking forgeometric shapes, used triangles, circles and squares to create thefigures and amplify the mood. Secondary colors were also used tocompliment various elements of the drawing. Green is used tocompliment the sky and the reflections on the water. Red is usedpredominantly on the father figure, while green is used for themother figure. Blue oar extends and focuses on the central ground,where a figure of a piece of fruit is drawn lying next to a growingsapling. Chagall used shades of blue on the figure of Christ, while alarge patch of ground to his left was made with orange. These twoobjects could be symbols of the fall of man and new life. Mountingfears of war in 1912 could also be represented in the mash-up ofcolors fighting for dominance.

Finally,texture is used to illustrate the various forms. Overall, the textureis light and airy. Chagall blends his colors to have an almostairbrush style of blending. There are soft, rippling lines to givemotion to the water in the middle ground. The cross has wood grainpainted, but is also disappearing into the background as if theformal object of the cross is not needed for Christ would ultimatelydie in this way to save the lives of men. There are floral elementsused on Christ’s wrap, his Father’s pants, and his Mother’sdress. This use of design and texture further illustrates thesefigures are related to each other. The soft and subtle blending ofgradients creates a three dimensional space to the textured planes ofsurface.

The various textures mixed with the various shapes and placement offigures and objects create a frenzied, yet organized dreamlikeresemblance to the Crucifixion. Comparatively, the Crucifixion isoften viewed as a mournful time in religious texts, instead Chagallpaints and captures the emotion of mourning, but also the peace ofChrist as his prophecy is complete and he is viewed as a JewishMartyr and Savior, both dying on the cross yet painted as a newbornexperiencing new life after his death.


After the World War began, Chagall retreated from a world of chaosand settled with his wife, Bella. According to his autobiography,“while the world was engaged in war, Chagall found—with his wifeBella, whom he had married in 1915—the ability to float above theworld’s reality and portray a time of great love”.45In this time, he completed some of his most celebrated paintings. Itwas when he established the wispy and ephemeral style which he becamewell known for in works like The Birthday. Inthis sort of insulated world, Chagall was able to draw a line betweenhimself and his own family on one side, and the concerns of politicsand society on the other. However, this isolationism could notcontinue for long, as another World War brewed in the interveningyears, and this new war found Chagall as a target, not just becauseof his outsider or political status, but because he was a Jew.

It was during the Second World War that Chagall found it impossibleto isolate himself, his art and the society. During this time, Hitlerhad initiated the Holocaust, which was a campaign to exterminate theJews.46The ruling Nazi party was now targeting artists as it rounded up itspresumed enemies of the regime. The Nazis encouraged people to comein numbers to condemn the art that was made by the Jews and theirsympathizers.47Chagall’s art was not left out. He chose not to stay in thissociety, and moved with his wife to the United States. It was at thispoint that Calvary gained its fame in the new world. He alsomade the White Crucifixion, which was a portrayal of a scenethat echoed Chagall’s perception of the world at that time.48Chagall’s wife died just before the end of the Second World War,and he soon returned to France and married his second wife, ValentineBrodsky.49


Looking Chagall’s life and works, it can be concluded that some ofhis strongest influences were the fathers of modernism in Europe,especially from Spain and France. More-so, the works and creations ofVan Gogh and Picasso were most influential to his style. These earlymodernists used their works to express themselves in the mostpowerful way possible. Chagall was also greatly influenced by theFauvist movement, especially in terms of usage of color. Like manyartists of his time, the artist was resistant to labels and easilyprogressed on to new styles that defined the art of the day. This isthe reason many historians and scholars attempted to label him as aCubist, Fauvist, Symbolist and Surrealist. Despite the fact thatFauvist was considered to be a short lived movement, its influenceson modern art continue being witnessed up to the modern day.

Besidesartistic influences, Chagall was molded by the people that heinteracted with and the events of the day. His parents, peers andteachers played a role in building his personality as a creative andobservant artist. The Russian revolt and the two “World Wars” were experiences that threatened and at the same time strengthenedhis career as a fine artist. Most of his drawings were a reflectionof symbolist leanings of his time. Additionally, religion played amajor role in defining him. Despite the fact that he was a devoutJewish, he used Christian themes in creating some of his mostprolific pieces. Being labeled a number of descriptions, it is oftendifficult to reduce an artist of Chagall’s caliber into theconfinement of such simple terms. This is highlighted by his strongopposition to labeling during his time. Chagall’s glittering careerwas indeed shaped by his surroundings, both the people he interactedwith and events that unfolded during his lifetime.

Figure1: Calvary, 1912.

Figure2: Girl on a Sofa, 1907.

Figure3: Jewish Crucifixion, 1912.

Figure4: Red nude standing up, 1908.

Figure5: Self Portrait, 1909.


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1 Caroline Barta Painting in the Anguish of the World: [Re} Examining the Crucifixion Motif in Chagall.” Scientia Crescat 9, 1 (2011).

2 Marc Chagall.&nbspMy life. Da Capo Press, 1994.

3 Chagall,&nbspMarc. Marc Chagall and his times: a documentary narrative. (Stanford University Press, 2004).

4 Caroline Barta, “Painting in the Anguish of the World: 57.

5 Marc Chagall,&nbspMarc Chagall and his times: a documentary narrative.

6 Ibid

7 Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Re-orientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. (New York, Knopf, 1958), 68.

8 Chritoph Knill, Caroline Priedel and Kerstin Nebel. “Break rather than barrier: The impact of the Catholic Church on Morality Policies in Western Europe.” West European Politics, 37 (5)(2014), 847.

9 Chagall, Marc Chagall and his times:, 65.

10 Marc Chagal, My Life. (Da Capo Press, 1994), 45.

11 Hughes, Consiusness and Society:, 121.

12 Susanne Marte-Finnis, The Return of Leon Bakst: Slav Magic or Oriental Other?.”, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 12 2(2013): 284.

13 Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Movement: A History-My Jewish Learning. Accessed January 31, 2015, 25.

14 Roger Simon I, “Pedagogy and The Call To Witness in ’s White Crucifixion.” Review of

Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 19, no.2-3 (1997), 173.

15 Annabel Jane Wharton, “Jewish Art.” Koninklijke Brill (2007): 32.

16 Aliya Reich, “Adrif in Paris: and the Negotiaiton of Identity through Painting, 1911-1914” (2012), 23.

17 Justin Wolf, “ Synopsis.” Marc Chagall Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works, 2015. 1.

18 Michael Salcman, &quotThe Fiancée With A Blue Face By (1887–1985).&quot Neurosurgery 61, no. 6 (2007): 1322.

19 Ibid, 1323.

20 Cassie-Ann Sacotte. “The Morals of .” 2013, 15.

21 Angie Christine Chau, “Dreams and Dissolutionment in the City of light: Chinese Writers and Artists Travel to Paris, 1920s-19402.” (New York, NY: Routledge,2012), 26.

22 Dan Frank. “Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art. (Grove Press, 2003), 34.

23 Benjamin Harshav, “ and His Times: A Documentary Narrative.” The Art Book 12, no.1

(2005), 32.

24Alina Orlov, “First There Was the Word: Early Russian Texts on Modern Jewish Art.” Oxford Art Journal 31, no.3 (2008), 385.

25 Christine Poggi. In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 23.

26 Charles Riley A. Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture,

Literature, Music, and Psychology. (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995), 54.

27 Jackie Wullschlager, “Visual Arts: On a Wing and a Fanciful Prayer.” Financial Times (March 13, 2003), 1.

28 Daniel, Robbins, &quotAbbreviated Historiography of Cubism.&quot Art Journal, Reviving Cubism 47, no. 4 (1988):, 277.

29 Stoyan Sgourev, “How Paris Gave Rise to Cubism: Ambiguity and Fragmentation in Radical

Innovation.” Organization Science 24 no.6 (2013), 1603.

30Aleksandra Shatskikh Semenovna. Vitebsk: The Life of Art.( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 32.

31 John Wright Buckland.&nbspEtching and Engraving: Techniques and the Modern Trend. Mineola, (NY: Dover, 1973), 23.

32 &quotFauvism Synopsis.&quot Fauvism Movement, Artists and Major Works. Accessed January 21, 2015., 1.

33 Ellen Oppler C. Fauvism Re-examined. (Education-Garla, 1976), 45.

34 Nicolas Pioch, &quotFauvism.&quot WebMuseum. October 14, 2002. Accessed January 30, 2015.

35 Daniel Robbins, &quotAbbreviated Historiography of Cubism.&quot Art Journal, Reviving Cubism 47, no. 4 (1988): 279.

36 Efraim Sicher, &quotModernist Responses to War and Revolution: The Jewish Jesus.&quot In Jews in Russian

Literature after the October Revolution: Writers and Artists between Hope and Apostasy.

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 123.

37 Karen Smith S. &quotChagall`s Mirror.&quot America Magazine. November 22, 2013. Accessed January 24,


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