Chagall’s early years in Russia—from 1907 to 1922—provide the key to his long and prolific career.
From his experiences over fifteen years (from 1907–1922) in Russia, Chagall developed the original visual vocabulary that became deeply embedded in his psyche.
Although Chagall was exposed to and experimented with a number of artistic styles during this time, he always maintained the integrity of his inner vision. His strikingly modern treatment of space and color and the suspension of logic in his work were welcome contributions to both the Russian and the European avant-garde.
Marc Chagall’s artistic odyssey of 1907 to 1922 took him from Vitebsk, his hometown in the Russian Pale of Settlement, to the art centers of St. Petersburg and Paris, and in 1914 back to Russia, where he was forced to remain due to the outbreak of World War I and through the early years following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution until his final departure in 1922. From his experiences over these fifteen years, Chagall developed his unique visual vocabulary.
These early years in Russia provide the key to Chagall’s long and prolific career. To understand how Chagall’s work took shape during this period, we must look to Yehuda Pen, the artist who was Chagall’s earliest teacher and mentor. As director of the first Jewish school in the Pale of Settlement, Pen figured also as the primary artistic influence for an entire second generation of shtetl youth. By grounding his own paintings in the immediate shtetl surroundings, Pen’s work provided a crucial model, validating the legitimacy of this artistic theme. Time has bypassed Pen, and his work has not been seen in the West. The opportunity to consider the work of both artists side by side enables us to understand the ambience and influences that shaped Chagall’s life.
Chagall’s themes and memories—rooted in his Jewish identity, the life of his village, and his personal relationships—would often recur in his later art, but never with the same vivid passion and sense of discovery revealed in these galleries.