Painters Every Photographer Should Know – Marc Chagall

As a Russian born of Jewish faith, you might expect a painter like Marc Chagall, who fled Nazi occupation by moving to Paris and the United States, to paint dark, brooding subjects. You might expect that, and you could certainly see how it could happen, but you’d be wrong. Despite living through arguably some of the most turbulent times in modern history, Marc Chagall, at least in the form of his paintings, was the ultimate optimist. His work was a colorful, happy celebration of life and fantasy, blended together with a touch of whimsy.

As a child, in Russia where he grew up, Jews were not allowed to attend regular schools or universities. Their movement in certain cities was restricted and many were forced to attend Hebrew schools or study quietly, restricted to the confines of their own homes. Art education for such pupils was restricted as well; a Jewish artist had one of two choices-either deny their Jewish heritage, change their names, and such, or the other choice, which was the path Marc followed, to celebrate their Jewish faith by selecting typically Jewish subjects. Fiddlers, minstrels, acrobats, and circus performers were some of his favorite subjects. His subjects included musicians, circus performers, and Jewish folk heroes throughout his career-he never strayed too far from his Jewish folks subjects even after relocating and despite the best attempts of the Nazi’s to oppress the Jewish faith in Europe at the time.

Marc Chagall was not just a painter. He worked in several media, including paintings, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramics, tapestries and fine art prints. His stained glass work, for example, spans from the United Nations building, to St. Stephen’s Church in Mainz, to All Saints Church in the small town of Tudeley in the United Kingdom and he is almost as noted for his stained glass work as he is for his paintings and prints.

As a painter, Marc Chagall never attempted to be a realist, but create his atmospheric work through fantasy-there’s a strong element of fantasy and happiness that permeates his work. He is also famous for his use of color. Pablo Picasso once said of him, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” Not a fan of using many colors, Chagall was also famous for using two to three basic colors on his palette, but according to Raymond Cogniat, author of The Century of Impressionists, “The colors are a living, integral part of the picture and are never passively flat, or banal like an afterthought. They sculpt and animate the volume of the shapes… they indulge in flights of fancy and invention which add new perspectives and graduated, blended tones…. His colors do not even attempt to imitate nature but rather to suggest movements, planes and rhythms.”

What Photographers Can Learn from Him

A few weeks ago, I overheard a photographer talking about HDR techniques. “Never before have such colors been blended together so well to bring us such a world of fantasy-such a magical creation!” he said. Um, no, Marc Chagall did it with paint while fleeing Nazi’s in the 1900’s.

Seriously, Marc Chagall’s sense of color, gift of happiness, ability to blend the real with the fantasy, and folks hero subjects are all techniques which can carry over directly into modern photography, including, yes, HDR photography. In particular, his Jewish folk hero subjects-like the fiddler, and the flying people you see pictured here would make for great subject matter for a photographer; many photographers today focus on gypsy-style subjects and they could benefit from a careful study of his work. I could also see a tableau vivant style portrait series done in the style of Marc Chagall, with bright, copious colors and the soft lines of rolling hills as a backdrop.

The colors of Marc Chagall might also make an interesting study for a photographer. It would not be too difficult to work with a few key colors, but blend shades, tones, and tints, to create visual impact as Chagall did, so I could see a photographer using either this painting, the fiddler, or “I and the Village” as a springboard for new, completely modern, photographic work.

For all these reasons, Marc Chagall, the gypsy who dreamed in color, earns his spot in the ranks of “Painters Every Photographer Should Know.” You can read more about Marc Chagall on the wikipedia entry about him and look for more posts (and painters) as part of the series.

This is first in a series called “Painters Every Photographer Should Know.” The painting shown here is Marc Chagall’s Promenade 1917-8. Please note that the paintings in this series are not copyright the author of this website, may be subject to international copyright law, and are provided her for educational purposes only.


  1. Janice / Dancing with Sunflowers
    November 5, 2009 / 5:38 pm

    Well, Carol – I looked at the title and then at the painting and I thought 'How on earth is Carol going to explain to me how this painting of a woman floating in the air is something I could be aiming for in my photography? I simply do not know any people who can float and certainly not anyone who would be able to pose for me doing so!'

    But I read and I take your point. For starters I see this restricted colour palette in a lot of your own photography, and then I went over to wikipedia and was able to pick out three colours in most of Chagall's paintings included there. The first one – parents – even has an air of HDR about it.

    As a photographer I love colour and beauty and I do set out to capture this with my camera. But I can see how, through being familiar with the work of a particular artist I could try to capture and portray something 'in the style of', rather than simply frame and compose 'what's there before me', and then experiment as a series to see how far I can take this. Doing this would undoubtedly take what I do to another level – at least it would if I could make it work!

    So yes, much food for thought. And thank you! Looking forward to others in the series!


  2. mythopolis
    November 5, 2009 / 7:33 pm

    He was pretty damn trippy , no doubt!

  3. Carol
    November 6, 2009 / 1:34 pm

    Thanks, Postcards! I've learned a lot from studying paintings and I'm hoping this new series can maybe share some of that-to spread the idea that photographers can gleam ideas from painters.

    Unfortunately, even in art schools, there doesn't seem to be a mix like this. It's almost as if they teach you to paint, then to draw, then to take pictures, but they don't tell you or show you how painting, drawing, photography can help with the other media. They don't show you in photography class anything about painting, but leave that to the painting class, for example, which means that, even with educated artists, they don't typically do enough of this sort of cross media "cross pollination" of sorts.

    Yes, Mythopolis, he was trippy, wasn't he?

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