Marc Chagall, the eldest of nine children, was born in July 7, 1887, in Vitebsk, Russia to a poor Hassidic family. As a young boy, he began to display his artistic talent and went St. Petersburg in 1907 to study art at the Imperial Society for the Protection of the Arts and later with Léon Bakst. Influenced by contemporary Russian painting, Chagall's distinctive, child-like style, often centering on images from his childhood, began to emerge.
Returning to Vitebsk, he became engaged to Bella Rosenfeld (whom he married twelve years later), then, in 1910, set off for Paris, 'the Mecca of art'. He was a tenant at La Ruche, where he had Modigliani and Soutine for neighbours. His Slav Expressionism was tinged with the influence of Daumier, Jean-François Millet, the Nabis and the Fauves. He was also influenced by Cubism. Essentially a colourist, Chagall was interested in the Simultaneist vision of Robert Delaunay and the Luminists of the Section d'Or. He participated in the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne in 1912. His first solo show was held in 1914 at Der Sturm gallery in Berlin. It was during this period that Chagall painted some of his most famous paintings and developed the features that became trademarks of his art. Strong, bright colors portray his dreamlike world with simplicity mixed with fantasy, religion and nostalgia. Animals, workmen, lovers and musicians populate his figures. The fiddler on the roof, a recurrent figure, is said to have been his uncle in real life. Chagall's style did not conform to any one school of art and he exhibited regularly in Paris at the Salon des Independants.
In 1914 Chagall returned to Russia, and was prevented from returning to Paris by the outbreak of war. He endorsed the revolution and was appointed Commissar for Art in 1918. But the Bolsheviks criticized his art as too modern. He settled in Vitebsk, where he founded the Vitebsk Popular Art School and directed it until disagreements with the Suprematists resulted in his resignation in 1920.
He moved to Moscow and executed his first stage designs for the State Jewish Chamber Theater there. After a sojourn in Berlin, Chagall returned to Paris in 1923 and met Ambroise Vollard. His first retrospective took place in 1924 at the Galerie Barbazanges-Hodebert, Paris. During the 1930s, he traveled to Palestine, the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, and Italy. In 1933, the Kunsthalle Basel held a major retrospective of his work.
During World War II, Chagall fled to the United States. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gave him a retrospective in 1946. He settled permanently in France in 1948 and exhibited in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. During 1951, he visited Israel and executed his first sculptures. The following year, the artist traveled in Greece and Italy. During the 1960s, Chagall continued to travel widely, often in association with large-scale commissions he received. Among these were windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem, installed in 1962; a ceiling for the Paris Opéra, installed in 1964; a window for the United Nations building, New York, installed in 1964; murals for the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, installed in 1967; and windows for the cathedral in Metz, France, installed in 1968. An exhibition of the artist's work from 1967 to 1977 was held at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, in 1977-78, and a major retrospective was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1985.
The Bible inspired many themes in Chagall’s paintings and his fascination culminated in a tour de force series of over 100 etchings of Biblical illustrations.
A versatile artist, Chagall painted with oil, watercolor, and gouache. He also created ceramics, mosaics and stained glass. He painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera House, murals at the New York Metropolitan Opera, a stained glass window at the United Nations and decorations at the Vatican. In Israel he created twelve stained glass windows at the Hadassah Hospital and tapestries for the Knesset.
Chagall received international recognition for his work and continues to be admired worldwide as one of the twentieth century’s most important painters. He was one of few artists to exhibit paintings at the Louvre while he was still alive. Chagall died March 28, 1985, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.