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Green Violinist (1924): Marc Chagall’s Avant-Garde Style

Marc Chagall’s Green Violinist is a striking composition that demonstrates his mastery of color and is simultaneously avant garde in its composition and traditional in its subject matter, a combination which characterized Chagall’s style. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at the artist’s life and style and at the composition of Green Violinist. 

Who was Marc Chagall? 

Marc Chagall in Paris, 1933 photographed by André Kertész
Marc Chagall in Paris, 1933 photographed by André Kertész

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. 

Bella and Marc Chagall in Paris, 1938
Bella and Marc Chagall in Paris, 1938

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. 

The ceiling of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, painted by Chagall
The ceiling of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, painted by Chagall

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”.

What’s happening in Green Violinist?

Marc Chagall, Green Violinist (1924)
Marc Chagall, Green Violinist (1924)

Marc Chagall’s Green Violinist combines his cultural and religious heritage with the avant-garde artistic training he received during his time in Paris. It is an image that evokes nostalgia and a sense of home. Chagall painted Green Violinist after returning to Paris from Russia in 1924. It depicts an oversized man, with a green face and hand, wearing a purple hat and coat and playing the violin. He stands on top of houses at the bottom of the composition, and behind his head is another street of houses. He is also surrounded by two other smaller figures, one sweeping by his waist and another flying above his head and a small donkey in the bottom left hand corner. Besides the vibrant green, purple and orange of the main figure and his violin, the rest of the composition comprises of relatively dull grays, beiges and browns. 

Green Violinist shows the influences of the avant-garde styles that Chagall learnt from his time in Paris, most notably, the disregard for perspective and scale recalls Cubism, as do the geometrical details in the figure’s clothes. The subject matter, however, reflects his Jewish/Russian origins, as in the Hasidic culture the fiddler is a significant presence at feasts and celebrations as it is thought that music and dance was a way to connect with God. Green Violinist is a spectacular composition and also shows influences of Chagall’s work as a set and costume designer for theaters, work which he had begun around 1917 and which he would continue to do until finally being commissioned to paint the new ceiling of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris in 1963. Green Violinist exemplifies Chagall’s mature style in its use of color, its theatrical qualities and its combination of avant garde and traditional influences. 

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