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I and the Village (1911): Marc Chagall’s Early Work and Life

Marc Chagall’s I and the Village is one of his earliest surviving works and demonstrates many of the key qualities for which his paintings are known. In this article, Singulart discusses the life and style of Marc Chagall, in addition to the meaning behind I and the Village. 

Who was Marc Chagall? 

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was a Russian-French artist and a renowned member of European Early Modernism. He was born into a Lithuanian Jewish Hassidic family near the city of Vitebsk, when Belarus was still part of the Russian Empire. At this time, Jewish children were not allowed to attend regular schools and their freedom was heavily restricted. Thus Chagall was educated at the local Jewish primary school until his mother bribed a regular high school into accepting him. Despite the doubts of his family and the odds stacked against Jewish artists at the time, Chagall pursued his desire to become a painter.

In 1906, he moved to Saint Petersburg, obtaining a passport through a friend as was necessary for Jews at the time, and he studied at a prestigious art school for two years. He then went on to study under the artist Leon Bakst at the Zvantseva school of drawing and painting until 1910. It was during this time that Chagall began to discover the works of the European Avant Garde, such as Paul Gauguin. In the same year, he moved to Paris in the hopes of developing his artistic style. While in Paris, Chagall immersed himself in the artistic hub of the time, becoming friends with other artists and creatives such as Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay and Fernand Leger, enrolling to study in an avant-garde art school and spending the rest of his time visiting galleries, salons and the Louvre. It was during this time that he began to develop a selection of his core motifs including floating figures, large fiddlers dancing on small dolls houses and farm animals. 

Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella

In 1914, Chagall accepted an invitation to exhibit in Berlin and then decided to continue back to Belarus, in order to marry his fiancée, Bella, planning to return to Paris with her immediately. However, the First World War broke out and the Russian borders closed, forcing Chagall to stay. He married Bella a year later and after the birth of their first child, Ida, he began to exhibit and work in Moscow. Between 1921 and 1923, Chagall worked hard and lived in impoverished conditions with his family. In 1923, he returned to France and started a business with the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard. 

Chagall remained in France until 1941, a period during which he worked prolifically and traveled around France, specifically the South, inspired by the landscape that also inspired his contemporaries such as Picasso and Matisse. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Chagall was saved from the Vichy and Occupied France by the New York Museum of Modern Art’s initiative, which helped rescue prominent artists in danger during the war and bring them to America. He arrived in New York on June 23rd, 1941 with his wife Bella, the same day Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. His daughter Ida and her husband followed and also sought refuge in the United States. He remained in America until 1947, when he returned to France and lived on the Cote d’Azur with many other of the early Modernists. In 1963, Chagall was commissioned by André Malraux, France’s Minister of Culture, to paint the new ceiling of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. 

Chagall’s frescoes painted in 1964 on the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier

Chagall’s style

Chagall’s unique style is characterized by his combination of influences, from Fauvist and Cubist techniques to Eastern European and Jewish folk art. In particular, he is renowned for his use of color, and Picasso is noted to have said: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” He was also described as “the quintessential Jewish artist” although he personally described his work as “not the dream of one people, but of all humanity”.

 Marc Chagall, The Birthday (1915)
Marc Chagall, The Birthday (1915)

What’s happening in I and the Village? 

Marc Chagall, I and the Village (1911)
Marc Chagall, I and the Village (1911)

Chagall’s I and the Village is described as a narrative self-portrait, as it melds memory, symbolism and imagination to conjure up this dream-like scene of his childhood town of Vitebsk. The composition can be divided into five sections. The top right section of the canvas depicts a landscape of the town, including a church, a street of houses and two people. Some of the houses and one of the people are upside down. Beneath this, across most of the right side of the canvas is a green-faced man thought to be a self-portrait of Chagall himself. In the center of the foreground is a hand holding a flowering branch, and to the left is an ambiguous, spherical object, thought to be a child’s ball. Finally, there is a small depiction of a milkmaid superimposed over the head of a lamb. 

I and the Village is one of Chagall’s earliest surviving works and demonstrates his already highly developed mastery of color. In his subject matter, he takes inspiration from Surrealism as he combines folkloric elements of symbolism with his imagination and memory to create this dream-like, ethereal scene. The inspiration of Cubism on Chagall is also clear in his composition of I and the Village. His disregard for perspective is evident, as the elements seem to float, overlap and reverse. The combination of Eastern European subject matter, focusing on Chagall’s personal life, and the influence of Western European modern painting, is evident in I and the Village and is characteristic of Chagall’s entire oeuvre. 

Want to see more artworks in a similar style? Discover Singulart’s Inspired by Marc Chagall Collection.

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