Born of a Hasidic Jewish family in the provincial capital Vitebsk on the river Drina in western Russia. Chagall displayed from his early schooldays the talent and vocation of an artist. After three months in the local art school he was able to go to St. Petersburg, where he studied for a short while at the School of the Society for the Protection of the Arts and privately under Leon Bakst. But he owed little to formal training and his work breathed the untutored spontaneity of folk painting enhanced by a touch of the more sophisticated naïvety of the Fauves, who were at this time being exhibited in St. Petersburg, and the hint of a debt to Miriskusstva, to which he was introduced by Bakst. In 1914 he was enabled to visit Paris by the generosity of a patron, Vinaver, and the greater part of his working life was spent there. He first lived in the tumbledown La Ruche, where Soutine, Modigliani, Léger and Archipenko also had their studios. His work attracted the attention of the avant-garde literary personalities Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and André Salmon and in 1913 he was brought by Apollinaire to the notice of Herwarth Walden, editor of Der Sturm, who exhibited three of his paintings at the first German Salon d’Automne and gave him a one-man exhibition at the Sturm Gallerie, Berlin in 1914. From Berlin he was caught by the outbreak of war on a visit to Vitebsk. There in 1915 he married Bella Rosenfeld, who figures in the famous double portrait of 1917 and in many other of his paintings. Finding the artistic atmosphere in Russia uncongenial, however, he returned to Berlin in 1922 to work on illustrations for the German edition of his autobiography which had been commissioned by Paul Cassirer.
In 1923 he returned to Paris and made France his home until the Second World War. He was the center of an enclave of émigré Jewish artists who met at the Cafe du Dome: the Russian Chaim Soutine, the Bulgarian Jules Paskin, the Pole Moïse Kisling and the Italian Amedo Modigliani. During this period he made visits to Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine in 1931, to the Netherlands in 1932, to Spain in 1934 and to Poland in 1935. He had his first retrospective exhibition in Paris at the Barbazange-Hodebert Gallery. in 1924 and his first one man exhibition in New York in 1926. In 1933 he visited Switzerland on the occasion of a large retrospective exhibition of his work in the Kunsthalle, Basle. He became a French citizen in 1937 and on the outbreak of war he was living in the Loire district.
In 1941 he was able to leave conquered France for America, where his wife Bella died in 1944. In 1946 he had a large retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1947 he returned to Paris for the opening of his exhibition at the Museum National d’Art Moderne and settled in France in 1948 making his home in Vence in 1950.
Throughout his long life Chagall was prolific in paintings and gouaches. Like so many others who found the artistic atmosphere of France congenial, he is loosely classified with the school of painting which flourished in Paris between the two world wars. Yet he stands out as one of the most original artists of his age. He used a rich repertory of images remembered from the Jewish life of his native land to construct a mythological world of unreality in which realistic representations are structured non-naturalistically and fragmentary scenes carry a pictorial symbolism which is not anecdotal. His paintings speak without being susceptible of literary interpretation. In 1946 he himself said of them: “I don’t understand them at all. They are not literature. They are only pictorial arrangements of images that obsess me ...”.