Marc Chagall

Images of earth and air co-mingle in this Jewish painter's enduring work

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Images of flight pervade much of the painter Marc Chagall's work. Some of Chagall's works depict people and objects defying the earth's gravity, hovering over a scene below. These images reflect the earthly and heavenly figures of Chagall's real and idealized life and world, and they offer a window of understanding into the artist's mind and work. 

Humble Beginnings

Chagall, born in 1887, found inspiration for much of his work in his upbringing in Vitebsk, Belorussia. There, a folktale is told of an artist named Chaim, the son of Isaac Segal (Chagall's family name was Segal before it was changed by Chagall). According to legend, Chaim Segal painted in three synagogues in three different towns, and when he completed painting, he fell off his ladder and died, with each of the three different synagogues claiming he had died in their synagogue. Chagall adopted this man as his fictitious grandfather in his autobiography. In reality, his mother was supportive of the artistic talent Chagall had discovered in himself, though his father was less so.

portrait of chagall

Portrait of Chagall

Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg on scholarship and counted among his most influential teachers the Jewish artist and magazine illustrator Leon Bakst. Chagall's works from this time, like In Front of Father's House (1908) and The Violinist (1910), show the familiar setting of his homeland.


In St. Petersburg, Chagall met Max Vinaver, who became his patron, sending Chagall to Paris and offering a monthly allowance. According to Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator of the 2001 Jewish Museum of New York exhibition "Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections," Chagall developed his unique style in these years prior to World War I.

Chagall took his homeland with him to Paris and created works that solidified the Russian identity found in his paintings, including Mother Russia (1912-1913) and I and My Village (1911). H. W. Janson notes, "Chagall here relives the experiences of his childhood, experiences so important to him that his imagination shaped and reshaped them without ever getting rid of their memories."

Floating Above Reality

Chagall was in Russia at the start of World War I and was unable to return to Paris. Chagall's work of this time reflects an interesting dichotomy between his personal life and the world at large. While the world was engaged in war, Chagall found--with his wife Bella, whom he had married in 1915--the ability to float above the world's reality and portray a time of great love. This reality reflects in Chagall's painting The Birthday (1915), which shows him and his wife seemingly elevated by the love between them, able to float above the world's reality and experience a time of great love. This is in contrast to his painting, The Canopy (1912), a wedding scene painted during his time in Paris, where bride and groom are grounded under the huppah (Jewish wedding canopy).

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Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman

Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Brockman is Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been active in raising community awareness on issues including gun violence, battered women, and the separation of Church and State, and sits on the Reform Movement's Commission for Social Action. She received Rabbinic Ordination from the Hebrew Union College.