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Prominent Russians: Marc Chagall

July 7, 1887 – March 28, 1985
Marc Chagall (image from Chagall (image from

The smell of childhood

Marc Chagall saw the world differently. There can be no question about it. When he was born in the small town of Vitebsk in Belarus, the house next door was on fire. Later, in his autobiography, simply entitled “My Life”, he writes: “Perhaps, that is why I am always so nervous”. Indeed, looking at photographs of him, you can notice an ever-present agitated sparkle in his eyes. Through these eyes he saw the world bubbling with life, colour, tenderness and happiness. That is the world that shines through his artwork, always inevitably pastoral and colourful. Always Jewish.

As a child he drew his pictures on sacks which hung over his bed. His numerous sisters stole them secretly and used as doormats. Doing things in secret was generally an easy thing in such a huge family – Marc was one of nine children. Remembering his childhood, Chagall wrote that “it smelled of smoked herring”. Herring was everywhere – on the dinner table, in the pantry.

It filled his mother's grocery store and was the main produce of the factory in which his father worked. Chagall's parents hoped that their son would do something useful with his life. “Become an accountant or a stewart,” they would say “or, at least, a photographer!” But the young Chagall would have none of it. He spent his time drawing everything he saw and happily ignored everything that was said in the synagogue school he attended.

The "capable" student

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Finally, in 1906, giving in to her son's pledges, Chagall's mother permitted him to attend art classes with the famous local artist Yehuda Pen. Marc was filled with hopes and dreams, he expected the famous master to bow to the beauty of his works. But his maximalism was met with severe rejection: Pen didn't think Chagall was talented. He was, at best, “capable”, he said.

The budding artist quickly lost interest in formal classical art. He didn't understand why he had to draw Ancient Greeks' cold marble heads when everything around him was so much more colourful, so much more living. He really did try, only Ancient Greeks in his pictures looked unmistakably Jewish. Within two months Chagall quit Pen's classes, despite his huge respect for his teacher. He felt disappointed, but still determined, always determined to show the world how he saw it, or maybe how it should be.

La Bella vita

Childhood was ending fast, perhaps too fast for Chagall's liking. It was time to move on, leave his parental home, grow up… But it trully ended with a vision. The vision's name was Bella. She appeared in front of Marc literally in the middle of the street and, despite years of separation, never left him since. The artist wrote that when he saw her, everything else disappeared. “She was alone, all alone… I had entered a new home and now it was mine forever”. Bella was Chagall's only muse. Even before their marriage, he painted her nude, much to the horror of his religious mother.

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He painted her almost constantly: in white, in black, nude, with a bunch of flowers, flying over the city… She is the one who inspired masterpieces such as The Birthday, The Promenade and Bouquet with the Flying Lovers. But all of that was later. For now, Chagall was young, in love and determined to conquer the country's capital – St. Petersburg.

The style of not giving up

St. Petersburg wasn't so fond of the future world-famous avant-garde artist. Chagall tried applying to a technical drawing academy, hoping to finally meet like-minded artists and, rather practically, to gain a living permit without which Jews were not allowed to live in the capital. He was still idealistic and was truly surprised when the academy, designed for the wealthy aristocracy, rejected a Jew from a poor family.

The rejection didn't affect him much psychologically – of course, he was still completely confident in the value of his vision. The practical side, however, wasn't so good. Chagall was forced to live in dingy rooms, the roofs of which often leaked. He was even arrested briefly for not having a residential permit. However, not giving up has

Image from www.gorod.vitebsk.byImage from

become his style and, finally, in 1910 he got accepted to an art school. And again, he felt uneasy. Classical art education focused on redrawing ancient statues, demanded realism. Chagall, on the other hand, wanted to change the world at will: if he sees a green face with a landscape on its forehead, why not paint it?

The colors of his world

And so, by the age of twenty, Chagall was completely confident that he could never get anything useful out of an art school. Why bother, if everyone can eventually draw a dead Greek made out of plaster? He said that despite hearing praise, he knew that he wanted something different, much like in the prayer that he invented as a child: “Hear me, God, you who’s hiding in the clouds or behind the shoemaker’s house, help my soul fulfill its purpose… Show me my destiny. I don’t want to be like others. I want to see the world my way.

The wish was granted. Leon Bakst, a famous theatre decorator at the time, was the first one to notice Chagall's talent. It was he also who sponsored Chagall to visit Paris for the first time in 1910.

In Paris

Thereafter and throughout his life, Chagall referred to Paris as his “second Vitebsk”. It never became his first. Despite the long separation with his distant homeland, he kept it everywhere he went in his heart and, as a result, in his art.

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And you can see it quite clearly indeed: the little goats, the herrings (so many herrings in his paintings!), the beautiful curly-haired people, fiddlers, merchants, lovers and, again, herrings… All of them are so clearly reminiscent of the years of his childhood. Some of his friends laughed and said that whatever or whoever he paints, it inevitably comes out as another version of Chagall.

He had phenomenal energy. During his three years in Paris he made hundreds of paintings and met dozens of people. Famous avant-garde poets, who quickly formed the circle of Chagall's friends, invented many terms for his work. They called it “supernatural”, “colourist”, “surreal”. French surrealists and German expressionists never failed to welcome him into their clubs. Chagall, however, only shook his head: he didn't associate himself with any particular school.

He learned from others, was inspired by their work, but above all, he wanted to create. His European popularity grew – in 1914 his first individual exhibition was held in Berlin – but something was pulling him homewards. Was it Bella? Or was it the Vitebsk series the he was working on?

Love in times of war

Whatever the case, on the eve of the First World War, Chagall returns to Belarus. He tirelessly works on his engravings, barely leaving his room, but, finally, as if stuck by lightning, offers his hand in marriage to Bella. She laughed at first: “I spent four years waiting for some artist!” Her parents were firmly against the union.

The daughter of rich jewelry makers, marrying a poor artist, the son of some herring-dealers… What will the neighbours say? But neither Marc nor Bella were interested in what the neighbours had to say and, in 1915, the couple got married.

After the Bolshevik Revolution

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Chagall welcomed the Revolution of 1917. He was excited by how quickly things were changing, by the sense of liberation that it gave. He was made Commissioner for Art in Vitebsk Province and put his seemingly endless energy to good use. He saw his home town as a huge empty canvas. He wanted to decorate its houses with bright banners and murals celebrating the beginning of a new era.

He wanted to teach its people to love art. And so he did, on the first anniversary of the Revolution the town was filled with painted cows and goats, much to the surprise of the Communist Party officials. Disappointed with his Vitebsk post, Chagall moved with his wife and four year-old daughter to Moscow to do the decoration for the Jewish Chamber Theater.

Famous at last

During the entire following year, he taught drawing at an international school for war orphans. But he tired of the ever-stricter Communist regime and the ever-impoverished lifestyle. Besides, Paris was calling. So to Paris he went.

What followed was an avalanche of fame. His paintings were displayed all over the world, including the top galleries of Paris, Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, New York City, Budapest, Amsterdam, Basel, Prague, and London. His wife and daughter no longer had to struggle to make ends meet, hopelessly trying to find bread and stitching up their stockings.

Fame, seemingly, didn't affect Chagall: he couldn't stay still, both geographically and in his work. He famously said: “I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment”. He was a popular man indeed: he worked on illustrations, theatre costumes and decorations, engravings, wrote critical essays and poetry. He visited Italy, the south of France, Germany, England, only to settle in New York in 1941 to escape the threat of Nazism.

Paralyzed by loss

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In 1944 came the biggest shock of the artist's life. His beloved Bella, his only inspiration, died. Then, news followed that his beloved Vitebsk is occupied by Nazi troops.

On February 15, 1944, a New York weekly published Marc Chagall’s address ‘To My Town of Vitebsk’.

“My dear Vitebsk, it has been a long while since I saw you and heard you, since I talked to your skies and rested my arms on your fences. All these years, like a saddened wanderer, I could only paint your breath on my pictures.

This is how I talked to you, seeing you in my dreams. My dear town, with all your pain, you still never asked me why I had left you long ago and what I sought instead.

We were apart, but my every picture epitomized your spirit and your face. I am happy and proud to see how firmly you have stood up against mankind’s worst enemy, I am proud of your people, of their creativity and the life you have built.

The best I can wish myself is hearing you say that I have always been faithful to you, or never would I have become an artist!”

For over a year Chagall could not force himself to pick up a paint brush. He started mindlessly at the unfinished painting in the corner of his studio.

The world for canvas

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In 1947, Marc Chagall returned to France to stay there for the rest of his 98-year-long life, at The Hill villa in the vicinity of Saint-Paul de Vence on the Azure Coast of the Mediterranean. At 65 he married Valentina Brodsky, whom he tenderly called “Vava”. She was no match for Bella, of course, and only featured in one of his paintings: simple, strangely realistic, not flying over a city but sitting down.

After Chagall had left the USSR in 1922, he was referred to as a French, but Chagall loved his Vitebsk so much that he pictured his hometown in almost every painting, or, indeed, any other work. Chagall had a talent for just about any artistic endeavor: he did painting, drawing, sculpture, inlay. He made illustrations for the Bible, and stained-glass windows for Christian temples in Switzerland, Great Britain, Germany.

He designed the frontage of the UN building in New York, he created a new interior design for the Paris Opera, he worked on the murals in the New York Metropolitan Opera. Working on his life-long project of illustrating the Bible, he visited religious buildings all over the world, painting murals, designing stained glass windows. The whole world was his canvas. He filled it with colour.

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