10 Famous Paintings by Modernist Master, Marc Chagall 

Marc Chagall - The Birthday. Marc Chagall - The Birthday. Lithograph sold for $300 via EJ'S Auction & Appraisal (July 2021)

Merging Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism, Marc Chagall ploughed a bold, bright, and distinctly abstract furrow as a pioneering modernist in the early 20th century. He created dream-like figurative and narrative art exploring life in Russia and France and his Jewish identity, and he influenced generations of future artists in the process.

“Lenin turned [the country] upside down, just as I upturn my paintings”

Marc Chagall 

Born into the Belarussian area of the Russian Empire as Moyshe Segal in July 1887, Chagall’s surroundings influenced his choices in later life, as his early life forged a determination to seek a life better than the one bestowed upon his father.

The eldest of nine children, Chagall’s father, Zachar, hauled barrels for a herring merchant. The work was tough, to say the least. Chagall compared it to that of a “galley slave” in his memoir, My Life, and the memory left him determined to avoid a similar fate. “My heart used to twist like a Turkish bagel as I saw my father lift those weights,” Chagall wrote. 

Revered by Pablo Picasso and his fellow Surrealists alike, the French-Russian artist left Russia to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Embracing Russian folk art and Orthodox Church icons, Chagall fused Jewish artistic tradition with contemporary Western ideas, to create an exciting new form of modernity, typified by brilliant use of color and an imaginative approach.

It was after his move to Paris in 1911 that intense color would really become a feature of Chagall’s art, inspired by the Fauvist movement sweeping France at the time. His later works explored love, religion, and world peace through painting, murals and even stained-glass art in a career that made him a defining figure in the history of European Modernism. To celebrate, Invaluable has selected 10 paintings that epitomise the experimental artist’s long career.

I and the Village (1911)

Marc Chagall, I and the Village print.

Marc Chagall – I and the Village print. Sold for €600 via A10 by Artmark (October 2019).

Painted after his move to a Paris community of international artists known as La Ruche (The Beehive) in Montparnasse, I and the Village displays the early influence of Cubism and Fauvism in Chagall’s art, yet with a more playful and liberal approach than that of his contemporaries, like Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse.

Chagall’s pastoral paradise of Russian countryside reflects his dreams and childhood memories of his motherland, alongside symbols from folklore stories. This blend of modern with the figurative, in a light, bright, and whimsical tone that incorporated elements of other modern movements of the time would help make him a famous and influential figure within the art world.

The original painting can be found in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Paris Through the Window (1913)

Marc Chagall Lithograph Signed In Plate, Paris Through the Window.

Marc Chagall – Paris Through the Window. Lithograph Signed In Plate sold for $120 via EJ’S Auction & Appraisal (January 2021)

Absorbing the various Avant-Garde movements in the French capital at the time, Chagall’s ode to the Paris skyline features semi-transparent overlapping planes of vivid color in a debt to Orphic Cubism, with the French tricolor flying above the city.

Reminiscent one of Robert Delaunay’s many Cubist paintings of the Eiffel Tower, Chagall utilises bright Fauvist color to reflect modernity, with a nod to the first successful parachute jump in 1912 included. Meanwhile, his exile from Russia is represented by an upside down train that can’t take him home, the Janus figure in the foreground, and the cat with a human-like face that mirrors the Jewish belief that dead sinners often return as cats to haunt family members.

The original painting can be found in the collection of the Guggenheim Museums.

La Mariée (The Bride) (1913)

Marc Chagall - La Mariee.

Marc Chagall – La Mariee. Color lithograph sold for $200 via Weschler’s (March 2022).

André Breton once said that “with him [Chagall] alone, the metaphor made its triumphant return to modern painting,” and this leaps from the canvas in La Mariée, in which real and imaginary worlds intermingle. The blue background portrays darkness, gloominess, and sadness, which contrasts brilliantly with the lively red dress and white veil of the joyous bride.

Chagall’s mastery of only a few colors and his vivid imagination brings life to the painting of the floating couple that are surreally serenaded by a goat playing what looks like a cello and a man on a clarinet, while a fish leaps into the air below a floating table. 

The original painting is in a private collection.

The Birthday (1915)

Expressing his euphoric love for his wife, Bella, shortly before they married in 1915, the painting flows in a dream-like manner. Chagall hovers surreally above Bella, his neck extended and head craned upside down as he twists to kiss his future wife. 

Fusing Cubist and Expressionist styles, the ode to the feeling of young love takes place in a blissful yet ordinary setting, but joy leaps from every color of the canvas. “In our life there is a single color, as on an artist palette which provides the meaning of life and art,” said Chagall. “It is the color of love.”

The original painting can be found in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Bella with White Collar (1917)

Chagall returned to Russia in 1914 to be with his fiancée Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a wealthy Russian jeweller. But the outbreak of World War I extended what was intended to be a three month stay until 1923, and during this time Bella was his muse. 

Showcasing Chagall’s mastery of more traditional subjects and forms, Bella with White Collar is one of his most famous portraits of his first wife. Her giant, larger than life figure stands above a lush pastoral scene, with only the smallest nod to sur-naturalism at Bella’s feet where two tiny figures represent Chagall and the couple’s daughter, Ida.

The original painting is in a private collection.

The Promenade (1918)

Marc Chagall – The Promenade.

Marc Chagall – The Promenade. Color lithograph sold for $100 via Pasarel (September 2015)

Embodying a sense of freedom and optimism following his marriage a few years prior, as well as the euphoria and optimism following the October Revolution in Russia, 1917, The Promenade paints a picture of bliss as his wife Bella flutters effortlessly in the wind.

The exhilarating and supernatural image used his home of Vitebsk as a landscape to form one of Chagall’s most romantic paintings. It bridges avant-garde art movements including Cubism, as shown in the geometrical meadow and medley of cubic houses that reach up to the sky, as well as Futurism, shown in the ornamentation of Bella’s skirt pleats.

The original painting can be found in the collection of the Guggenheim Museums. 

Green Violinist (1923-24) and Musicien (1928-29)

Marc Chagall – Musicien.

Marc Chagall – Musicien. Sold for $6,872,000 via Christie’s (May 2007).

Among the best-known and most widely reproduced of Chagall’s quintessential images, Chagall produced a few variations that are said to have influenced the name of the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof. Chagall claimed that he made him green for purely “psychic and plastic reasons” and said that green is an “arbitrary poetic color”. 

Recalling his memories of Vitebsk and the Russian countryside Chagall’s devotion to his Jewish cultural roots shines through in this version of the fiddler (Musicien), which has been divested of his Cubist, geometric shapes of his clothes, which can be seen in the earlier Green Violinist at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

The original Green Violinist can be found in the collection of the Guggenheim Museums, and Musicien is in a private collection. 

White Crucifixion (1938)

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall at Art Institute of Chicago. Image courtesy of mookiefl via Flickr.

If Chagall’s earlier work reflected an optimism and sense of excitement following his marriage and the Russian Revolution, then his 1938 painting provides an opposing window into the suffering of European Jews during the 1930s and his response to the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

A devout Orthodox Jew, Chagall departs from the whimsy and optimism that defined his earlier career and in its place a dark, brooding intensity could be found. In White Crucifiction, he depicts Jesus on the cross, with Jewish figures on all sides of him fleeing from devastation that links biblical events with the persecution of Jews during WWII in one of his most critically acclaimed masterpieces. 

The original painting can be found in the collection of the Art Institute Chicago

Le cheval de cirque (Circus Horse) (1964)

Marc Chagall - Le cheval de cirque.

Marc Chagall – Le cheval de cirque. Sold for $746,500 via Christie’s (November 2008).

Returning to one of his favored subjects from his early years in Paris, Chagall was in his seventies when he painted one of his finest and most vigorous late works. In it, he once again conjures up images from the past and projects a preternaturally youthful persona in the foreground as the grinning clown in an imagined creation he called a ‘theater of memory’. 

“For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound. These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces? With them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colors and make-up, I can dream of painting new psychic distortions,” explained Chagall.

The original painting is in a private collection.

Le couple aux deux bouquets (The couple with two bouquets) (1982)

Marc Chagall - Le couple aux deux bouquets.

Marc Chagall – Le couple aux deux bouquets. Sold for £2,002,500 via Christie’s (March 2021).

Painted during a prolific creative period of Chagall’s career – at the incredible age of 94 – the stability and contentment in his personal life following his move to the South of France with his second wife, Vava Brodsky, bursts from the canvas in the form of brilliant sunshine, vibrant colors, and luscious vegetation. 

The theme of loving couples was something that Chagall had explored in his earlier work (see The Birthday and The Promenade) and he revisits this to reveal the importance of memory to him at this stage of his career. The painting portrays an entrancing vision of a world of ecstatic dream and romance; an approach which is typically Chagall. 

The original painting is in a private collection.