If you know a little bit about art, chances are you may have heard of Marc Chagall. A world-renowned Jewish painter who mixed various art styles to create his own distinct identity. In his whimsical world, Chagall painted objects that defied the laws of gravity – cows and people float in space high above the rooftops of a distant village.

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Belarus in 1887. He was the oldest of nine children from a loving Jewish family. His father worked as a barrel pusher in the herring market, which is why growing up, Marc’s tiny childhood home was always filled with big barrels of herring, as well as his eight other siblings. His mother ran a shop in the front room of the house. In other words, the house itself was always packed like herring in a barrel. Eventually, Marc persuaded his reluctant parents to let him study art, first with a local teacher and then in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.

In 1910, Chagall set out for Paris, where he enjoyed moderate success. Art critics said that Chagall revolutionised the use of bright colours in his paintings, which for the most part depicted scenes of life in Vitebsk. Chagall returned to Vitebsk in 1914, planning a short-term visit but the First World War started and he could no longer leave the country. He married Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a Jewish Vitebsk jeweller.

In 1917, the October Revolution toppled the Russian Empire and Vitebsk became part of the Soviet Union. Chagall enjoyed a brief artistic triumph, becoming a leading figure in Soviet art, establishing a museum and an art academy in Vitebsk. However, this quickly faded and he became a stage designer for a Yiddish theater in Moscow. By the 1920s, Chagall’s work no longer suited the Soviet government and he decided to leave.

Credit: Pierre Choumoff , Public domain, enhanced by The Together Plan through Remini, via Wikimedia Commons
Marc Chagall’s house in Vitebsk (Photo credit: Debra Brunner, 2019)
Marc Chagall, Storehouse of Herrings, 1911 (Photo credit: Debra Brunner 2019) Exhibited in Marc Chagall’s house in Vitebsk

Marc, his wife and daughter, left for Berlin, after which he began his worldwide journey as a renowned artist. Aside from painting, he created mosaics, murals and stained glass art, all of which featured bright colours distinct to Chagall’s style. He lived in France, and became a French citizen, but in 1940, he fled to the USA after the Germans invaded Paris. After the war, he settled back in France where he lived until the age of 97. Chagall lived in many places throughout his long life and adopted their identities, but deep down he was always the poor Jewish artist from Vitebsk.

You may wonder why we talk about Chagall here, and the answer is that he had many identities: he identified as a Jew, also as an artist. When he was born, Vitebsk was in Belarus which was then part of the Russian Empire – so would he have identified as a Belarusian or a Russian?

Chagall used his memory for good. The Vitebsk he knew and painted had vanished even before the Germans destroyed the town along with the Jewish life in it. The Soviet government started erasing the Jewish identity and culture soon after the communists had taken power. Chagall relied on his memory to create beautiful paintings that have immortalised what Vitebsk used to look like. At the beginning of the 1900s, Vitebsk’s population was more than 50% Jewish – this was the town Chagall always remembered and had featured so often in his paintings. When the Germans attacked Vitebsk, most of the Jewish population was put in the ghetto and later executed. Only a handful of people survived.