Themes in the Art of Marc Chagall

Over the course of his prolific career, Marc Chagall developed a repertoire of symbols and themes, presented in a modern style using strong bright colors, that made his work unique. He was known both as a preeminent 20th century modern artist and as perhaps the preeminent Jewish artist of his time. This following discussion is but a summary of some of Chagall’s symbols and themes.

Chagall’s works are steeped in his Jewish heritage, often including memories of his home in Vitebsk, Belarus and it’s folk culture. These themes are evident in the nostalgic work, The House In My Village. The work is done in a style he used early in his career, when he was experimenting with cubism. His religious upbringing influenced him for his entire life and helped lead him to illustrate cycles of stories from the Bible several times in his career. This interest in religion and the Bible can be seen in works such as The Angel.

View The House In My Village
View The Angel

Chagall fell in love with France from his first visit and he eventually settled there permanently. The bright red of Bay of Angels and the mixed colors of Vision of Paris show his love for his beloved France in dreamlike fantasies. The Bay of Angels shows the Mediterranean coast, while the image of the Eiffel Tower in Vision of Paris leaves no doubt about his passion for that city.

View The Bay of Angels
View Vision of Paris

Like many artists before him, the festive atmosphere surrounding the circus shows up frequently in Chagall’s works. In addition to a suite of lithographs titled The Circus, clowns, equestrians, jugglers, and other circus figures appear in Chagall’s works throughout his life. The Woman Juggler and The Circus in Yellow are two examples of his enthusiasm for the circus.

View The Circus Suite (another website)
View The Woman Juggler
View The Circus in Yellow

The breadth of Chagall’s work included illustrating tales and stories, such as the ancient story of Daphnis and Chloe and a collection of the Fables of Fontaine. The lithographs of Daphnis and Chloe are considered by many as his best graphic work. But the theme he returned to most often was the Bible. He portrayed stories from the Bible throughout his career in lithographs and etchings. Here is an etching called The Rat and the Elephant from the Fables of Fontaine, and one called Psalms 2 from his suite The Psalms of David.

View The Rat and the Elephant
View Psalm 2 Etching

Chagall was often commissioned to contribute his talents to noteworthy public works, including cathedrals and public buildings. He created mosaics, sculptures, and several sets of stained glass windows for buildings around the world. In 1963, he was commissioned to paint a new ceiling for the historic Garnier Opera House in Paris. An example of his work for the ceiling of the opera can be found in lithographs of his sketches that were reproduced by Charles Sorlier, Chagall’s master printer at Mourlot Press. Homage to Garnier and Sketch for Moussorgsky and Mozart are among these works.

A recurring theme in Chagall’s works is the artist himself. Sometimes he is pictured alone and other times he is surrounded by other characters and symbols. The horse was often used by Chagall to symbolize himself. Some examples of Chagall’s self portrayal include Self Portrait Frontespiece and Profile with Red Child.View Self Portrait Frontespiece
Visit Profile With Red Child

Chagall’s otherworldly images and joyful colors have appealed to art lovers throughout the 20th century. They draw us in and resonate with our own dreams and hopes. They will continue to have universal appeal in the 21st century.

This summary of the themes in Chagall’s art is a unique expression drawn from over a dozen sources. For more information on Chagall and his art, please consider one of the following works:

  • Marc Chagall:  Early Works from Russian Collections, The Jewish Museum of New York, 2001.
  • Marc Chagall:  Daphnis and Chloe, Prestel, 2000.

Take a side trip to the Chagall Museum in Nice, France

Read a short biography of Marc Chagall

View our selection of works by and after Marc Chagall

Visit Chagall at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art

See Chagall at the Chicago Art Institute

Check out the 2003 Chagall Exhibit at the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art