Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Chagall was born in 1887 in the town of Vitebsk, Russia (now in Belarus). He attended a traditional Jewish school and a Russian high school, moving to St Petersburg in 1907, where he studied at the Imperial School for the Protection of the Fine Arts, and later at the Zvantseva School, led by Leon Bakst.

Find out more about Marc Chagall.

Work by Marc Chagall in the Ben Uri Collection

Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio 1945 gouache on paper

Le cheval et l’âne (The Horse and the Donkey) 1927 etching on Montval paper

Marc Chagall biography

Chagall was born in 1887 in the town of Vitebsk, Russia (now in Belarus). He attended a traditional Jewish school and a Russian high school, moving to St Petersburg in 1907, where he studied at the Imperial School for the Protection of the Fine Arts, and later at the Zvantseva School, led by Léon Bakst.

In 1910, Chagall arrived in Paris, where he settled at La Ruche and met other Jewish artists including Modigliani, alongside key figures in French modernism including Guillaume Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay.

Chagall’s first solo exhibition took place at Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin, in 1914. That same year, he returned to Russia to visit his family.

While he was there, the First World War broke out, preventing his return to Paris.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Chagall was appointed Fine Arts Commissar for the province of Vitebsk, but in 1922 left again for Berlin, where his work was published by the periodical Der Sturm.

He returned to Paris in 1923, where he stayed until 1940, becoming a French citizen in 1937. In 1927, the dealer Ambroise Vollard invited Chagall to produce a series of etchings to illustrate the seventeenth-century French poet La Fontaine’s famous Fables, to which Le Cheval et l’âne (The Horse and the Donkey), part of the Ben Uri permanent collection, belongs.

The commission caused much controversy, as commentators asked why a Russian Jew, a foreigner to French culture, should be selected to illustrate a classic of French literature.

Vollard responded that Chagall’s aesthetic had something akin to La Fontaine’s: it was “at once sound and delicate, realistic and fantastic”.

Chagall frequently used animals for symbolic purposes in his dream-like paintings that brought together aspects of French tradition with Russian folklore.

Chagall sought refuge in New York during the Second World War, where a major retrospective of his work was held at The Museum of Modern Art in 1946.

He stayed in America until 1948, then returned to France, settling in the south-eastern town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1952.

In later life, Chagall produced stained-glass schemes for churches, including the chapel at Tudeley, Kent in southern England. Marc Chagall died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1985.

Video discussion about Marc Chagall

Chagall’s Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio was featured in the Ben Uri exhibition Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion (2010).

Watch Ben Uri chairman David Glasser discuss art and censorship and the Crucifixion motif in contemporary art.