The Paris Opera unveils a stunning new ceiling painted as a gift by Belorussian-born artist Marc Chagall, who spent much of his life in France. The ceiling was typical of Chagall’s masterpieces—childlike in its apparent simplicity yet luminous with color and evocative of the world of dreams and the subconscious.
Marc Chagall was born in the town of Vitebsk in the Russian empire in 1887. His parents were Jewish merchants, and the society he grew up in was in many ways a survival from the medieval era. The Jewish and Russian folkloric themes to which he was exposed in his youth would inform his artwork throughout his career. He took up drawing as a child and in 1906 went to St. Petersburg to study art with the help of a rich Jewish patron. In 1908, he was invited to the Zvantseva School to study under the prestigious theater designer Leon Bakst and that year produced one of his great works, The Dead Man, a nightmarish painting inspired by a brush with death.
In 1910, another Jewish patron sent Chagall to Paris, rescuing him from what might have been a career confined to folk art. In Paris—the center of the Western art world—he was embraced by avant-garde artists who encouraged him to exploit the seemingly irrational tendencies of his art. Imaginative works like I and the Village (1911) generated widespread enthusiasm, and Chagall entered the artistic phase that many viewed as his best. His pictures, wrought in a variety of artistic mediums, showed a fantastical world in which people, animals, and other figurative elements were cast in bright and unusual colors and seemed to dance and float across the canvas.
He had his first one-man show in Berlin in 1914 and with the outbreak of World War I was stranded in Russia during a visit to Vitebsk. He welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917, which provided full citizenship for Russian Jews and brought official recognition of Chagall and his art. He was made a commissar for art in the Vitebsk region and helped establish a local museum and art academy. However, he was soon frustrated by aesthetic and political quarrels and in 1922 left Soviet Russia for the West.
He was welcomed as an idol by the Surrealists, who saw in Chagall paintings like Paris Through the Window (1913) an important precursor to their own irrational and dream-like art. He took up engraving and produced hundreds of illustrations for special editions of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables, and the Bible. In 1941, he fled with his wife from Nazi-occupied Paris to the United States, where he lived in and around New York City for seven years. War-induced pessimism and sadness over the death of his wife infused much of his art from this period, as seen in the Yellow Crucifixion (1943) and Around Her (1945). In 1945, he designed the sets and costumes for the New York production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and in 1946 Chagall was given a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1948, he returned to France, and eventually settled in the French Riviera village of St. Paul de Vence, his home for the rest of his life. In 1958, he designed the sets and costumes for a production of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe at the Paris Opera. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he produced stained-glass windows, first for a cathedral in Metz, France, and then for a synagogue in Jerusalem. In 1964, Chagall completed a stained-glass window for the United Nations building in New York that was dedicated to the late Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.
Meanwhile, Andre Malraux, the French minister of culture, commissioned him to design a new ceiling for the Paris Opera after seeing Chagall’s work in Daphnis et Chloe. Working with a surface of 560 square meters, Chagall divided the ceiling into color zones that he filled with landscapes and figures representing the luminaries of opera and ballet. The ceiling was unveiled on September 23, 1964, during a performance of the same Daphnis et Chloe. As usual, a few detractors condemned Chagall’s work as overly primitive, but this criticism was drowned out in the general acclaim for the work. In 1966, as a gift to the city that had sheltered him during World War II, he painted two vast murals for New York’s Metropolitan Opera House (1966).
In 1977, France honored Chagall with a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. He continued to work vigorously until his death in 1985 at the age of 97.