Vitebsk – Chagall’s Heart and Hometown

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Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Belarus. During his school years, he picked up the habit of copying images from books, which prompted him to pursue formal artistic training. Though he physically left Vitebsk for St. Petersburg, then Paris to pursue that training, his heart and mind was still attached to his hometown.

He was exposed to avant-garde influences such as Cubism when he got to Paris, but he never let go of the influences of his childhood or his birthplace. Vitebsk was well known for its large Jewish population, and Chagall’s incorporation of Jewish folklore became one of his trademarks. Vitebsk itself made frequent, explicit appearances in his work. Some of his most well known paintings of Vitebsk were created when he was in Paris from 1910-1914. He painted Vietbsk from memory in all seasons with colorful imagery that matched the longing sentiment he felt for his hometown. His love for Vitebsk was so forceful that he often called Paris, a place where he would spend a large part of his life, his “second Vitebsk.”

Marc Chagall, Snow, Winter in Vitebsk (1911), gouache on cardboard

Part of his longing for Vitebsk was rooted in his desire to be with his wife, Bella. Bella was in Chagall’s thoughts from the moment they met, and he returned to Vitebsk from Paris to propose to her in 1914. The advent of the war would force him to stay in Vitebsk longer than he intended, but doing so led to his appointment as the Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk.

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk (1913), oil on canvas

Marc Chagall, The Marketplace, Vitebsk (1917), oil on canvas

Chagall’s paintings of Vitebsk were not limited to the time he spent in Paris. He painted Vitebsk repeatedly and with reverence throughout his entire career. In his autobiography, Chagall wrote, “The soil that nourished the roots of my art was Vitebsk,”  making it clear that even when he was away from his hometown, he was never far from it.

Marc Chagall, Memories of Vitebsk (1934-35), oil on board