Marc Chagall, born Moishe Shagal (1887–1985)

Image: Chagall window in Collegiate Church of St. Stephan zu Mainz, Germany.

Joseph A. Harriss wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine of December 2003:

“David McNeil fondly remembers the day in the early 1960s his father took him to a little bistro on Paris’ Île St. Louis, the kind of place where they scrawl the menu in white letters on the mirror behind the bar, and masons, house painters, plumbers and other workingmen down hearty lunches along with vin ordinaire. Wearing a beret, a battered jacket and a coarse, checkered shirt, his father— then in his mid-70s—fit in perfectly. With conversation flowing easily among the close-set tables, one of the patrons looked over at the muscular, paint-splotched hands of the man in the beret. “Working on a place around here?” he asked companionably. “Yeah,” replied McNeil’s father, the artist Marc Chagall, as he tucked into his appetizer of hard-boiled egg and mayonnaise. “I’m redoing a ceiling over at the Opéra.”

Chagall, the Russian-born painter who went against the current of 20th-century art with his fanciful images of blue cows, flying lovers, biblical prophets and green-faced fiddlers on roofs, had a firm idea of who he was and what he wanted to accomplish. But when it came to guarding his privacy, he was a master of deflection. Sometimes when people approached to ask if he was that famous painter Marc Chagall, he would answer, “No,” or more absurdly, “I don’t think so,” or point to someone else and say slyly, “Maybe that’s him.” With his slanting, pale-blue eyes, his unruly hair and the mobile face of a mischievous faun, Chagall gave one biographer the impression that he was “always slightly hallucinating.” One of those who knew him best, Virginia Haggard McNeil, David’s mother and Chagall’s companion for seven years, characterized him as “full of contradictions—generous and guarded, naïve and shrewd, explosive and secret, humorous and sad, vulnerable and strong.”

Chagall himself said he was a dreamer who never woke up. “Some art historians have sought to decrypt his symbols,” says Jean-Michel Foray, director of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum in Nice, “but there’s no consensus on what they mean. We cannot interpret them because they are simply part of his world, like figures from a dream.” Pablo Picasso, his sometime friend and rival (“What a genius, that Picasso,” Chagall once joked. “It’s a pity he doesn’t paint”), marveled at the Russian’s feeling for light and the originality of his imagery. “I don’t know where he gets those images. . . . ” said Picasso. “He must have an angel in his head.”

Throughout his 75-year career, during which he produced an astounding 10,000 works, Chagall continued to incorporate figurative and narrative elements (however enigmatic) into his paintings. His warm, human pictorial universe, full of personal metaphor, set him apart from much of 20th-century art, with its intellectual deconstruction of objects and arid abstraction. As a result, the public has generally loved his work, while the critics were often dismissive, complaining of sentimentality, repetition and the use of stock figures…

Notes veteran art critic Pierre Schneider, “Chagall absorbed Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Expressionism and other modern art trends incredibly fast when he was starting out. But he used them only to suit his own aesthetic purposes. That makes it hard for art critics and historians to label him. He can’t be pigeonholed.”

When he died in Saint Paul de Vence on March 28, 1985, at 97, Chagall was still working, still the avant-garde artist who refused to be modern. That was the way he said he wanted it: “To stay wild, untamed . . . to shout, weep, pray.”

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