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Forms and Light: Chagall in Paris, 1911 – 1914

These essays originally appeared in Chagall et l'avant-garde Russe, edited by Angela Lampe, and published by the Centre Pompidou. The complete French catalogue is available for purchase at shopAGO.

Transated by: Wyley Powell

“Before I arrived in Paris, my life was flat and colourless.”1

During his stay in Paris from 1911 to 1914, Chagall created a sizable body of works of unrivalled originality that set him apart from his contemporaries. For the young artist, this period was all the more productive because his eclectic training in Vitebsk and later in St. Petersburg – working with Léon Bakst in particular – had prepared him for the aesthetic upheavals that were taking place in the French capital. His first paintings, with their powerful images – such as The Dead Man (1908–1909), The Couple, also known as The Holy Family (1909, MNAM), and The Holy Family (1910, Zurich, Kunsthaus) – had some elements in common with Neoprimitivism. Introduced by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova to the young generation of Russian painters, this movement effected a synthesis among the European avant-gardes and the popular national imagery which was rooted in everyday life.

Despite his meagre resources, which were partially offset by a scholarship from Maxim Vinaver, a deputy and one of his patrons, Chagall decided to go to Paris, a city that was then in full artistic effervescence, to see how his own art stacked up against that of his contemporaries. In My Life, a book he wrote in 1922 confirming his early penchant for autobiography, he calls to mind the three years he spent in Paris, placing his arrival in France in 1910 rather than in the spring of 1911, which was when he actually arrived.2 This information came to light only recently3 and is important because it allows us to accurately date certain Chagall works from 1911, rather than 1910 as inscribed on the canvases of these paintings.

Such is the case with The Wedding, a painting in which the organization of coloured space alludes to the work undertaken by Robert Delaunay in his Cubist-inspired Cities, where the Eiffel Tower makes its first appearance. In the same way, Studio owes a great deal to Matisse, who was actively pursuing this theme and whose Pink Studio Chagall had probably seen at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (Exhibition of Independent Artists), an exhibition he attended as soon as he arrived in Paris. This painting, set in the living room studio on the Impasse du Maine in the heart of Montparnasse, where the painter lived at the beginning of his stay, also reveals the influence of Van Gogh and the attraction that Expressionism held for Chagall.

During the winter of 1912, he settled in at La Ruche, located at 2 Rue de Dantzig, remaining there until he returned to Russia in May 1914. He took up residence on the second floor in the famous rotunda of this complex with its 140 studios where artists could live and work cheaply. Many yet-to-be-known artists lived at or frequented La Ruche at that time, including Fernand Léger, Henri Laurens, Alexander Archipenko, Ossip Zadkine, Jacques Lipchitz, Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné, Amadeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Moses Kisling. Russians and Poles were the first to arrive, mostly Jews who had been driven out of their home countries by the pogroms.

In the midst of what he called “the artistic Bohemia of all countries,” Chagall preferred isolation. He was intensely active, devoting a part of his nights to his work and undertaking numerous studies for his paintings. He set a goal for himself: “I was fervently preparing for the Salon exhibitions.”4 In the months that followed his arrival, Chagall, together with his friend Alexander Romm, also a former student of Léon Bakst, attended the Académie de La Palette where Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger taught. They also frequented the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where they were able to paint from models. Chagall took advantage of these opportunities to experiment with Fauvism and Cubism, which he was discovering at the time, and produced a remarkable group of gouache nudes, including Nude with Fan (1911). However, it was through his exposure to the works he saw during his visits to the Louvre, to the Bernheim, Durand-Ruel and Vollard galleries, as well as the Salon exhibitions that he truly learned his craft: “No academy could have given me everything I discovered through my fixation on the exhibitions, showcases and museums in Paris.”5 He became aware of how French painting, regardless of the period, differed from his own artistic heritage. This difference was even more pronounced in contemporary art.6

Chagall was present at the inaugural gathering of Cubist artists, who made their first appearance at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, where works by Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Léger, Le Fauconnier and Metzinger were displayed in the same room. A few months later, he attended the Salon d’Automne (Fall Exhibition). At that time, he took stock of the distance between his own art and this revolutionary aesthetic, and although he dismissed the principle of deconstruction-reconstruction, which caused the subject to disappear, he did adopt some of the processes such as the geometrization of forms or the techniques of transparency. Over the course of his three years in Paris, Chagall would manage to merge two elements which, at first glance, seem contradictory: on the one hand, there was his Jewish and Russian culture steeped in tradition; on the other hand, he had come face to face with Cubism and its offshoots, which were the embodiment of modernity at the time. “And so, a type of dualism took shape in me. One part of me was filled with enthusiasm for these ingenious examples of formal art (…) but, in spite of everything, my soul sank into a certain sadness and longed to find a way out.”7

The distance from his native Russia rekindled his memories and intensely fed his imagination while, at the same time, he appropriated the various passing styles of the day with astonishing speed and eclecticism, though never fully subscribing to them. A perfect demonstration of this phenomenon can be found in his reinterpretation of certain subjects which he had first explored in Russia and then took up again in Paris, such as Birth. The first version (Zurich, Kunsthaus), painted in 1910, was naturalistic, while the second (Munich, private collection), made the following year, was painted in a Fauvist style. Meanwhile, the third version (The Art Institute of Chicago), also dating from 1911, offered a Cubist vision.

For Chagall, Cubism was a framework that provided formal and chromatic potentialities which he could use by turns without relinquishing his aspirations. Adam and Eve (1912, St. Louis Art Museum) is one of his most Cubist works, with its two major characters formed of cubes and hemispheres that fit into one another; it recalls Léger’s Wedding (1911) and belongs without question to the universe of the painter from Vitebsk. In this work, Chagall also blended both naturalistic elements (the apple tree and its fruit) and animals that took on bizarre appearances because of their reduced size. When Chagall, following the example of Delaunay, used the vivid and contrasting colours of Orphism, he did so with a totally different purpose in mind. For him, it was not a matter of exploring “pure painting” but of combining animated scenes with ranges of colour (contained in circles and other geometric shapes) in order to better highlight the symbolism. We can see this in such works as The Wedding (1911–1912), Russian Village under the Moon (1911–1912; Munich, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst) and Golgotha (1912, New York, MoMA). Using a language congruent with his time, Chagall was able to tackle all the themes close to his heart, including those that had fallen out of currency, such as his amorous passion or his firm belief in religion.

His encounter with Cendrars was one of the most crucial meetings that Chagall was to have during his years in Paris. The two of them apparently met in late 1912 or early 1913.8 Cendrars had lived in Russia and was fluent in Russian, and both shared a love for that country along with feelings of rootlessness. Cendrars celebrated their friendship in some of his poetry, notably in “Elastic Poem 4.” Another similarity between them can be seen in their respective creative approaches through image associations.9 Cendrars translated Chagall’s thoughts and provided the definitive titles for five of his best paintings executed in Paris: To Russia, Donkeys and Others (1911, MNAM), I and the Village (1911, New York, MoMA), Dedicated to My Fiancée (1911, Bern, Kunstmuseum), The Poet, or Half Past Three (1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection) and The Holy Coachman (1911–1912, private collection).

Cendrars also brought his friend into contact with the Delaunay couple, who often entertained a large number of artists. Another person who took an interest in Chagall was the Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo, who was a friend of both Cendrars and Apollinaire, the art critic and founder of Montjoie!, a publication that considered itself to be the journal of all the avant-gardes. Canudo organized a one-day exhibition of Chagall’s drawings on the premises of where the journal was printed. Among those in attendance were Gleizes, Metzinger, Roger de La Fresnaye, Léger, André Lhote, André Dunoyer de Segonzad and “so many others”10 whom Chagall saw on a regular basis at Canudo’s Monday gatherings.

Within this artistic and literary circle, Apollinaire played a leading role by way of his many acquaintances and through his role as an art critic (he had been writing for the journal L’Intransigeant since 1910). Chagall was happy to attract Apollinaire’s attention via Cendrars, though he knew that the author of Alcools, who was also an advocate and friend of Delaunay and the Cubists, did not fully subscribe to his art. These affinities with men of letters illustrate that the latter were the first to recognize the painter’s pictorial language, and also showed the greatest sensitivity to his ambivalent situation as an artist divided between two cultures.11 Yet Chagall’s universe of fiction and metaphors, while derived from reality, was too complex and “supernatural,” to use Apollinaire’s term, to convince the followers of Cubism and, more generally, the critics and artists: they were left perplexed by this uncategorizable painter.

In titling one of his paintings Homage to Apollinaire (1911–1913, Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum), a work that the critic admired greatly, Chagall demonstrated his friendship and gratitude to Apollinaire as well as to Cendrars, Canudo and Herwarth Walden, whose names he wrote on the canvas around a heart. Gradually won over by Chagall’s uniqueness, Apollinaire introduced the artist to Walden in March 1913. Walden then invited Chagall to participate in three exhibitions in his Der Sturm gallery in Berlin and organized the first solo exhibition of his work in June 1914, presenting 34 paintings and approximately 120 watercolours and drawings from the Paris period. This event, hailed by critics, brought attention to Chagall in Germany and led to a greater appreciation of him in France and Russia.

During his three years in Paris, Chagall painted some major works – works that had a fundamental creative influence on his art until the mid-1920s. While drawing on his memories, beliefs and dreams, these paintings were nonetheless open to the world. Yet without pretending to transform the world, he invites us to look at things in a different way, thanks to his juxtapositions of the fantastic and the real, his introduction of tragicomic situations and his bringing together of people and events in time and space.

Painted in 1913, Paris through the Window (New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) illustrates the artist’s evolution during his brief time in Paris and is evidence of his attachment to the city. All of Paris belonged to him; Vitebsk had disappeared from his architectural structures. The colours of the French flag are seen alongside the Eiffel Tower and the polychromatic grid pattern of the window attests to the fact that Chagall had adopted the style of his contemporaries. He remained, however, deeply attached to his native Russia, with the two-faced head symbolizing his dual affiliation.

  1. Marc Chagall, quoted in Lassaigne 1957, 22.
  2. This work is more informative in terms of the artist’s impressions and reflections than it is with respect to specific temporal facts. For a detailed biography of Chagall, see Wullschlager 2008.
  3. Jakov Bruk, “Marc Chagall, 1887–1922,” in Chagall connu et inconnu, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 2003), 22.
  4. Marc Chagall, Ma vie, translated from the Russian by Bella Chagall [1923] (Paris: Stock, 2003), 153.
  5. Ibid., 144.
  6. A difference all the more striking because Russian and French artists did not exhibit their works in the same rooms – particularly not at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants.
  7. Quoted in Marc Chagall, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris, 1959), 11.
  8. See Élisabeth Pacoud-Rème, “États d’âme, Cendrars et Chagall, de l’amitié au doute,” in Dis-moi, Blaise. Léger, Chagall, Picasso et Blaise Cendrars, exhibition catalogue (Biot: Musée national Fernand Léger; Nice: Musée national Marc Chagall; Vallauris: Musée national Pablo Picasso, 2009), 69–75.
  9. See James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (New York: MoMA, 1946; republished by Arno Press, 1969), 16.
  10. Marc Chagall, Ma vie, op. cit., 155.
  11. See Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, “Nul n’est prophète dans son pays?” L’internationalisation de la peinture des avant-gardes parisiennes, 1855–1914 (Paris: Musée d’Orsay/Nicolas Chaudun, 2009), 182–198.

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