Russian-born French painter and graphic artist. Among many honours and awards, he received the Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur.
Born into a poor Jewish family in Vitebsk, western Russia, he managed, despite restrictions imposed on movement for Jews, to study art in St Petersburg. Russian folk painting, however, played as great a part in forming his style as formal training. In 1910 a patron enabled him to move to Paris, where the influence of contemporary avant-garde art forms liberated him from naturalism. He joined no movements but took from each whatever was useful to him. In his early masterpiece I and the Village (1911), inspired by his memories of Vitebsk, the intense arbitrary colours recall fauvism while the composition, which is based on circles and triangles, seems influenced by cubism. When asked why he had painted two of the houses in this picture upside down and a milkmaid apparently inside a cow's head, he replied, ‘I needed that kind of shape in that place for my composition.’ Later he described his work as ‘pictorial arrangements of images that obsess me’. Thus his work is frequently autobiographical and, although representational, conforms to no natural laws.
In 1915 Chagall returned to Russia and married Bella Rosenfeld, who subsequently figured in many of his paintings. After the October Revolution of 1917, he was made a commissar for fine arts but was ousted in 1919. He then moved to Moscow before going to Berlin (1922) and Paris (1923), where he stayed until World War II. Book illustrations, including over a hundred illustrations for the Old Testament, occupied much of his time in the 1920s and 1930s. After his autobiography Ma vie was published in 1930, he travelled widely in Europe and the Middle East. He became a French citizen in 1937 but lived in the USA between 1941 and 1947. During World War II, particularly after the death of his wife in 1944, Chagall's normally bright paintings became dark and ominous.
After returning to France in 1948, he accepted numerous public commissions, including the ceiling for the Paris Opéra (1964) and two murals for the Lincoln Centre in New York (1966). Chagall was one of only three painters to have had an exhibition of his works in the Louvre (the others were Braque and Picasso).