Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

America Windows, A Masterpiece in Stained Glass by Marc Chagall

Viewing Marc Chagall’s America Windows is an almost overwhelming experience. Standing at eight feet high and thirty feet across, the mammoth windows include symbols of America’s history, in particular America’s relationship with the arts. Although Chagall was an acclaimed painter, Singulart will be exploring his work with stained glass, and the impressive work that is America Windows

The Life and Times of Marc Chagall 

Chagall was born in Liozna in 1887, the oldest of ten children. In his autobiography My Life, he describes how his Jewish heritage influenced his art. He wrote, “I felt at every step I was a Jew – people made me feel it.” He was permitted to attend a Russian high school after his mother paid the headmaster fifty roubles, and it was here he was inspired to start his artistic career after seeing a fellow student drawing. Having had no exposure to art up until this point, he began copying drawings out of books, eventually persuading his mother to let him join the studio of Yuri Pen. 

Portrait of American Windows creator Chagall at work.
Portrait of Chagall at work.

In 1906 he moved to St Petersburg using a temporary passport borrowed from a friend, as Jews were not able to enter the city without an internal passport. He studied at an art school for two years, later attending the Léon Bakst School of Drawing and Painting. He was deeply influenced by Bakst’s success as a Jewish artist, gaining the confidence to move to Paris in 1910. 

In Paris, Chagall connected more with poets rather than painters, due to his unabashed use of color and emotion in his work at a time when Paris was still heavily influenced by the cubism movement. He enrolled at Académie de La Palette, an avant-garde art school, where he would be taught by Jean Metzinger, André Dunoyer de Segonzac and Henri Le Fauconnier. Paris began to influence his work along with his Jewish heritage, and he began including motifs of Paris in his work. He held his first solo exhibition in 1912. 

While visiting Russia in 1914, Chagall found he could not return to Paris due to the outbreak of World War I. He settled in Vitebsk, founding the Vitebsk Popular Arts School before disagreements with proponents of the Suprematism movement led him to resign in 1920. After moving to Moscow, he executed his first designs for the State Jewish Chamber Theater. 

American Windows: A group of students photographed at the Vitebsk Popular Arts School , c. early 1900s.
A group of students photographed at the Vitebsk Popular Arts School , c. early 1900s.

Chagall moved to the United States during WWII. His work there was celebrated, and in 194 he was given a retrospective by The Museum of Modern Art. During the 1960s he traveled extensively, receiving commissions from all corners of the globe. The last thirty years of Chagall’s life were prolific. He continued painting but, having mastered the medium of stained glass, also worked on many large scale installations, such as the windows at the Cathedral of Metz in France and the United Nations building in New York. 

Chagall passed away in 1985 at age 97 in St. Paul de Vence. He left behind a legacy of being a true master of color and an early adopter of surrealism and modernism. 

American Windows and Chagall’s Stained Glass Technique

Though Chagall was well known for his surrealist, dream-like paintings, it was his stained glass windows later in life that would serve as part of his legacy. Chagall carried through his mastery of color to his stained glass pieces, creating awe-inspiring, large-scale pieces. He stated, “To me, stained glass is the transparent wall between my heart and the world’s. Stained glass is uplifting, it requires gravity and passion. It must come alive through the light it receives.”

Three stained glass windows made by Chagall for the axial chapel of the Reims Cathedral.

Incredibly, Chagall didn’t start working with stained glass until he was in his seventies, aided by his assistant Charles Marq. Marq developed a technique which allowed Chagall to use up to three colors on an uninterrupted pane. Prior to this, stained glass artists had to separate each color pane by lead strips, but Marq used an acid etching on flashed glass, which caused subtle color gradations. He would then assemble the panes in a way that used lead cane to delineate and intersect the images etched into the glass. After this, Chagall would be able to paint onto the glass before firing it in a kiln to fuse the paint and glass together. 

America Windows 

Chagall’s America Windows was presented as a gift to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1977, completed in time for the bicentennial of the United States. Chagall chose to gift this piece to Chicago, and to dedicate it to late Chicago mayor Richard J; Daley, as he was impressed by the city’s enthusiasm for art. 

Within the six panels, Chagall has included motifs that celebrate the rich cultural history of the United States. Throughout the panels, Chagall includes allusions to America’s history with music, particularly rhythm and blues (seen in the first panel, with images of musicians, instruments and a musical score), to the influence of literature and the written word (seen in the third panel, depicting an inkwell, a desk, and a hand holding a pen), and to the values of freedom and democracy (as seen in the depiction of a bird flying over a skyline that includes the Statue of Liberty, which was itself a gift to America for their centennial). Historians are dubious as to whether specific meaning should be ascribed to the details Chagall included in the window, or if they were just included because they were aesthetically pleasing to Chagall. 

Love the work of Chagall? Check out the official Singulart collection Inspired by Marc Chagall and discover similar contemporary artists.

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