Biography Marc Chagall, 1887-1985

“All colours are the friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites.”
- Marc Chagall

by Charles Sorlier about Marc Chagall lithographs:
“It must be understood that this artist, except in case of certain book illustrations demanding a close relationship with the text, has never recopied a preexisting composition. He works in accordance with the technique of lithography so as to realize a creation which cannot be obtained by other means. This way of doing things is, in my opinion, the real criterion for an original plate, the subject springing out of the inspiration of the moment.
Chagall normally begins the process of producing a lithograph by drawing a composition in black on stone, zinc or transfer paper, whatever is convenient. The black is nearly always the complete skeleton of the work. After having printed some proofs, he adds the colours, in water colour or in pastel, thus permitting himself a choice between several versions. The maquette established, Chagall then executes the principal plates. Next he and I do the colour tests at the arm press, tests which are subsequently submitted to him. He nearly always goes over them again, correcting them and adding other tones.
New trials are usually necessary before the definitive adjustments. Only when he fnds the proof entirely to his satisfaction does he sign the printing order (usually for fifty proofs). Otherwise all the compositions are remorselessly destroyed.”

Marc Chagall was born as one of eight children of a Russian-Jewish family in Vitebsk, Russia. His given name was not Marc, but Moses Zakharovich and his family was Hassidic. In Paris – at that time the Mecca of art – Chagall was exposed to Fauvism and Cubism, but he retained his unique poetic style and never became identified with any art movement. Aside from his paintings and commissions for stained glass windows for Roman-Catholic Cathedrals and Jewish Synagogues, he created a rich plethora of prints. As color was of such great importance for his work, lithography became Chagall’s favorite technique.

 Early Lithographs 1922-1923 

Chagall was already 35 years old when he started to work with printmaking techniques. During this time he lived in Berlin, Germany with his wife Bella and his daughter Ida. He created woodcuts, etchings and a total of 24 lithographs. These early prints were drawn by the artist on paper and transformed into lithographs by a professional printer. Like most of his fellow artists, Chagall had no yet mastered the necessary technical knowledge and skills required by the printing process.

Etchings for the Publisher Vollard 

In 1923 Chagall returned to Paris, where he received three major commissions from the art dealer and publisher Vollard. He illustrated Gogol’s book The Dead Souls, La Fontaine’s Fables and the Bible, using the etching technique. Vollard died before these illustrations could be finished, but after a long delay they were published by E.Teriade in 1948, 1952 and 1956.

Exile in New York In 1941

Chagall fled from Nazi occupied France to New York, where the Museum of Modern art had invited him to exhibit. In 1944 the artist’s wife Bella died. In his house in High Falls, Chagall created the series Four Tales from the Arabian Nights. This series consists of 12 Chagall lithographs in color. They were first painted as gouaches and then printed in 1948 in the studio of Albert Carman, City Island, New York. It is not known to which degree the artist was involved in the printing process. During Chagall’s exile in New York, he also designed the costumes and stage decorations for a ballet performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird. In 1946, the New York Museum of Modern Art mounted a huge retrospective exhibition of Marc Chagall’s prints and paintings. The exhibition was such a success that it was later shown in Chicago.

Working with Mourlot and Sorlier in Paris

In 1947 Mark Chagall returned to France. 1950 is the beginning of a completely new era for his printmaking activities. At the age of 63, Chagall began anew, learning the art of making lithographs from scratch – like an apprentice. The teacher of this gifted pupil was Charles Sorlier, an exceptionally talented professional printer. Under the guidance of Sorlier, Chagall worked regularly with Sorlier in the printing studio of the publisher Mourlot in Paris. It was during this period that he created Daphnis and Chloe, among other graphic masterpieces. Chagall prints are usually limited to an average of 50-90 copies, signed and numbered by the artist. In addition to these numbered prints, about a dozen artist proof prints – numbered in Roman numbers and printed on different paper – were produced. From 1950 on, Velin d’Arches or B.F.K. de Rives paper was used. These papers have watermarks. Both paper brands are not purely white, but are slightly toned. But editions printed on Japan paper (Japon nacre) can be found as well. Apart from the prints in a very limited number, large editions of up to 8000-15,000 copies were produced and published in magazines like Derriere le Mirroir and XX Siecle. Chagall used lithographs for all kinds of occasions, including menus and birthday cards. At the end of his life, the artist had created more than one thousand prints – mainly lithographs and etchings. He died at the age of 98 on March 28, 1985 in Saint-Paul de Vincent in France. His works continue to be sought after by art lovers and museums all over the world.