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The Art and Symbolism of Marc Chagall



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    The Art and Symbolism of Marc Chagall


    “My name is Marc, my emotional life is sensitive and my purse is empty, but they say I have talent.” Of course, people who regard Marc Chagall as the revered artist that he is, knows that his paintings are more than just about mere ‘talent,’ and are likely to share a much grander sentiment.

    Born Mark Zakharovich Shagalov on July 7, 1887 in the former Russian region of Vitebsk, Belarus; Marc Chagall is among the greatest artists who practiced their craft and gained recognition in the 1900s. He grew up in a close knit Russian-Jewish family as the oldest of nine sons. His father worked in a herring factory, and his mother stayed at home to take care of his brothers and himself. The Chagall family was not afforded many luxuries, but their mother encouraged her oldest son to pursue his interest for the arts, prompting Marc Chagall to study in the Yehuda Pen’s school of Painting in Vitebsk, then to the Imperial School of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, and eventually – with the help of a patron – on to his adoptive country of France. The country where he would learn to expand on his skils and artistry, and gain significant footing on his career.

    After years of education in France, Chagall would later on return to Vitebsk and be briefly appointed ‘Commissar of Fine Arts,’ at which time he would help organize art schools and museums in the community. From Vitebsk he would move to Moscow, and then back to Paris after the political tension grew at odds with his work. Fame would send him doing commissions in various countries such as Germany, Israel, Mexico, and in the United States, where he would lose his wife Bella Rosenfeld to an illness in 1944.

    Before he left home, Chagall experienced a rich childhood in the form of his family and the Jewish-Russian community in Vitebsk, despite financial difficulties and economic shortcomings. His Belarussian culture and heritage remained a constant influence on his art, which took form in whimsical quaint houses, churches, the romantic sky, horses, fiddlers, angels and people, beautifully blended in an explosion of colors, geometric shapes and cubist sensibilities. The early 1911 painting, I and the Village, for instance, portrays his Belarussian roots and his childhood community in a colorful dream-like fashion.

    ‘Fantasy,’ ‘dream-like’ and ‘surreal’ are among frequent terms used in close proximity to Chagall’s different murals, stained glass windows, paintings, and artworks in general. Although critics are scrutinizing his work for its lack of ‘realism’, many revel in the visual appeal of his pieces because of the visual poetry it evokes.

    But images of flying fishes, angels, cows, horses, various animals and lovers afloat, appear representations of something else and much of his art seem steeped in symbolism. Chagall notes that “If a symbol should be discovered in a painting of mine, it was not my intention. It is something that may be found afterwards, and which can be interpreted according to taste.” Regardless of this response, people have taken to assigning ‘symbols’ in his paintings their corresponding meanings.

    Rperesentation and symbolism is perhaps most evident in Chagall’s intriguing and controversial 1938 painting White Crucifixion, which was followed in 1943 by a similar painting called YellowCrucifixion, where his talents for incorporating various elements and color are captured on canvass, as well as his predilection to the religious, from his Jewish-Belarussian roots.


    Interpretations regarding both work suggest that the paintings were Chagall’s response to the Stalin regime, the purging of the Jews during the Nazi era, and how the person of Jesus abounds mostly as the non-messiah who is unable to deliver Jewish people from their suffering. Apart from the obvious and blatant portrayal of Jesus on the cross, elements of Jewish tribulations exist in the form of the Torah scroll, Jewish candlesticks, communities burning, displaced families and an angel who appears to be ironically carrying out a message of peace and hope.


    Self Portrait with Seven Fingers

    Another visually intriguing painting of Chagall’s involved his self portrait where he portrays himself painting with seven fingers on his left hand. This could perhaps be attributed to the fact that despite incorporating his own brand of style, Chagall chooses to dabble in different forms of art and incorporate the particular persuasions in the said forms. As Chagall famously quotes, “I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment.”


    Closely referrred to as the symbol of freedom, horses in Chagall’s works abound in paintings such as The Flying Carriage, Circus, I and the Village, and in his work on the Paris Opera ceiling.


    Again, the religious undertones in his theme takes form in the most literal representations of faith and religion. Church structures are portrayed in the crude and typical nature of a house with a cross on its roof. Churches are in his various work on canvass, stained glass windows, murals and other work.

    Cows, Goats,Chickens

    Animals are painted purple, or in a color which doesn’t conventionally fit their skin. Chagall regards farm animals as closely relating to his childhood and community. In Vitebsk, people and animals co-existed in a state of rural bliss.

    The Circus

    Apart from the literal portrayal of a circus and carnivalesque type setting in his painting Circus, all of Chagall’s works are done in a fashion that seems to combine a circus of elements, colors and ideologies, into a visceral art experience.

    Marc Chagall’s extensive body of work has been exhibited in buildings such as the Cathedral of Metz, where his work on stained glass windows stayed from 1959 to the year 1962. In 1964 he was able to work on the ceiling of the Paris Opera. But perhaps most notably, in the Hadassah Hebrew Medical Center in Jerusalem, where his work on twelve stained glass windows representing the twelve tribes of Israel were installed.

    Today, the extent of Chagall’s work exists for private and public viewing in various countries across Europe and the United States. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City displays a mosaic mural of Chagall’s since 1965.

    In Europe, the Musée National Message Biblique Chagall or the Chagall Biblical Message Museum in Nice, France which opened in 1973 devotes itself solely to Chagall’s works. In his hometown of Vitebsk, is the Marc Chagall Art Center, which displays the artists’ graphic work.


    The artist passed away on March of 1985 at the age of 97 in St. Vence, France. His contribution to the art world on the other hand will live perpetually in his myriad paintings, stained glass windows, murals; and his blend of colors, fantasy and childlike wonder will be enjoyed immensely by this generation and others to come.
    Works Cited

    Bugoslawski, Alexander (2005). Mark Zhakarovich Shagal. Retreved November 25, 2007    from

    Foster, Joseph K. (1993) “Marc Chagall” In Encyclopedia Americana (Vol. 6, p. 234-235)    Encyclopedia Americana.

    Gladstone, Julie (2007, May 9). Chagall Art and War. Retrieved November 25, 2007            from

    World Wide Art Gallery (2001). Retrieved November 25, 2007 from   

    Ivinski, Pamela A. (2005) Marc Chagall. Retrieved November 25, 2007 from World Book    Multimedia Encyclopedia v.9.0.2. The Software MacKiev Company.

    The Art and Symbolism of Marc Chagall. (2017, Mar 30). Retrieved from

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