Marc Chagall: Painter of Angels

One night the artist saw a vision of an angel in blue--and it changed his art forever.

For close to a century, Marc Chagall painted luminous, beautiful angels in fantasy landscapes of fiddlers, lovers, cows and flowers. Famous for his depiction of Biblical scenes as well as nostalgic images of his Russian childhood, Chagall’s work continues to amaze, delight, and inspire us. But what inspired this visionary painter?

Born Mark Zakharovich Shagal in the small Jewish ghetto of Vitebsk, Belorussia (now Belarus), Chagall was one of ten children. His father packed herring for a living; his mother ran a small store. While they didn’t have much money, the family was able to give young Marc violin and singing lessons. From an early age, Marc also drew and wrote poetry.

Becoming an artist was an unlikely goal for a boy growing up in rural Belorussia, and it was not an idea that Marc’s parent supported. Marc and his father fought frequently about his future. One day, after a particularly furious argument, Mark ran away from home to the imperial capital of St. Petersburg. He wasn’t yet twenty years old.

Far away from home, living in a small, furnished room, Marc faced many challenges. As a Jew, he was forbidden to live in St. Petersburg; without a permit to live in the city, he was continually forced to evade the authorities. Marc was jailed once, but still managed to study at two of St. Petersburg’s great art schools.

At that time, an amazing vision had a cataclysmic effect on his life and art. An article in “Angels on Earth” details the event: One night, drifting into sleep in his small room, Chagall thought he heard the rustle of wings. He opened his eyes and immediately felt pins and needles of pain in his forehead. The room was filled with an unearthly, brilliant blue light. An angel hovered above him. As Chagall watched, the angel slowly floated up through the ceiling; the light and the beautiful blue air vanished with him.

After this vision, Chagall began a lifetime of work to portray the wonder of the angel and the color of the beautiful blue air. Later, he would describe his work by saying, “My art is an extravagant art, a flaming vermilion, a blue soul flooding over my paintings.”

The miracle of blue also figured in Chagall’s long love story with his wife Bella. When she met him, she thought that his eyes, piercingly blue, must have come from heaven. For his part, Chagall felt that Bella brought “blue air, love and flowers” into the room every time he saw her. The angel that blesses the young couple in his painting “The Marriage” expresses the sense of divine joy he found with his wife.

In 1910, the Chagalls moved to Paris. Living and working as a poor artist, he moved back and forth between Paris and Moscow; slowly, his reputation grew. By 1930, Chagall was world famous.

Chagall’s beloved Bella died suddenly in 1944, but Chagall’s work sustained him. Not long after Bella died, he painted one of his greatest pictures, “Blue Concert,” a blend of his early angelic vision with the faces of Bella and their daughter Ida.

Marc Chagall continued to work until his death at 97. He created paintings, tapestries, theatre costumes, stained glass windows. His work illuminates museums and other public buildings throughout the world. Many of his works showed images from the Hebrew Bible. "I have been fascinated by the Bible since I was very young,” Chagall once said. “It always seemed to me, and it still does, that the Bible is the greatest source of poetry that has ever existed. Since that time, I have been seeking to express this philosophy in life and art."

One of his most emotional works later in life was a series of stained-glass windows on Jewish folk themes for the Hadassah University Medical Centre in Jerusalem. This work brought him a very different type of vision. "All the time I was working," he said, "I felt my father and my mother were looking over my shoulder, and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews of yesterday and a thousand years ago."

Chagall died on March 28, 1985, shortly after an exhibition of his work in Russia, his mother country. He remained active, creating art until the end of his extraordinary life. Pablo Picasso once said: "When Chagall paints, you do not know if he is asleep or awake. Somewhere or other inside his head there must be an angel."

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Johanna Skilling
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