Ceiling of the Paris Opera House | Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 to a poor Jewish family in Russia. He was the eldest of nine children. Chagall began to display his artistic talent while studying at a secular Russian school, and despite his father’s disapproval, in 1907 he began studying art with Leon Bakst in St. Petersburg. It was at this time that his distinct style that we recognize today began to emerge. As his paintings began to center on images from his childhood, the focus that would guide his artistic motivation for the rest of his life came to fruition.

In 1910, Chagall, moved to Paris for four years. It was during this period that he painted some of his most famous paintings of the Jewish village, and developed the features that became recognizable trademarks of his art. Strong and bright colors began to portray the world in a dreamlike state. Fantasy, nostalgia, and religion began to fuse together to create otherworldly images.

In 1963 Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a majestic 19th-century building and national monument. André Malraux, France’s Minister of Culture wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist. However, this choice of artist caused controversy: some objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument; others disliked the ceiling of the historic building being painted by a modern artist. Some magazines wrote condescending articles about Chagall and Malraux, about which Chagall commented to one writer:

They really had it in for me… It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen… work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.[9]:196

Nonetheless, Chagall continued the project which took the 77-year-old artist a year to complete. The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet (220 sq. meters) and required 440 pounds of paint. It had five sections which were glued to polyester panels and hoisted up to the 70-foot (21 m) ceiling. The images Chagall painted on the canvas paid tribute to the composers Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berlioz and Ravel, as well as to famous actors and dancers.[9]:199

It was presented to the public on 23 September 1964 in the presence of Malraux and 2,100 invited guests. The Paris correspondent for the New York Times wrote, “For once the best seats were in the uppermost circle:[9]:199 Baal-Teshuva writes:

To begin with, the big crystal chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling was unlit… the entire corps de ballet came onto the stage, after which, in Chagall’s honour, the opera’s orchestra played the finale of the “Jupiter Symphony” by Mozart, Chagall’s favorite composer. During the last bars of the music, the chandelier lit up, bringing the artist’s ceiling painting to life in all its glory, drawing rapturous applause from the audience.[9]:199

After the new ceiling was unveiled, “even the bitterest opponents of the commission seemed to fall silent”, writes Baal-Teshuva. “Unanimously, the press declared Chagall’s new work to be a great contribution to French culture.” Malraux later said, “What other living artist could have painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera in the way Chagall did?… He is above all one of the great colourists of our time… many of his canvases and the Opera ceiling represent sublime images that rank among the finest poetry of our time, just as Titian produced the finest poetry of his day.”[9]:199 In Chagall’s speech to the audience he explained the meaning of the work:

Up there in my painting I wanted to reflect, like a mirror in a bouquet, the dreams and creations of the singers and musicians, to recall the movement of the colourfully attired audience below, and to honour the great opera and ballet composers… Now I offer this work as a gift of gratitude to France and her École de Paris, without which there would be no colour and no freedom.[12]:151

In 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, Chagall held a one-man show in Berlin, exhibiting work dominated by Jewish images. During the war, he resided in Russia, and in 1917, endorsing the revolution, he was appointed Commissar for Fine Arts in Vitebsk and then director of the newly established Free Academy of Art. In 1922, Chagall left Russia, settling in France one year later. He lived there permanently except for the years 1941 – 1948 when, fleeing France during World War II, he resided in the United States. Chagall’s horror over the Nazi rise to power is expressed in works depicting Jewish martyrs and refugees.

In addition to images of the Jewish world, Chagall’s paintings are inspired by themes from the Bible. His fascination with the Bible culminated in a series of over 100 etchings illustrating the Bible, many of which incorporate elements from folklore and from religious life in Russia.

Israel, which Chagall first visited in 1931 for the opening of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, is likewise endowed with some of Chagall’s work, most notably the twelve stained glass windows at Hadassah Hospital and wall decorations at the Knesset.

Chagall received many prizes and much recognition for his work. He was also one of very few artists to exhibit work at the Louvre in their lifetime.

Learn more about the artist at  –  Marc Chagall 1887-1985

Ceiling of the Paris Opera House
by Marc Chagall
VillaDuCarl Art Collection | Portland, Oregon
Original Unsigned Color Lithograph 1965
Plate Cancelled
10″ x 14″ print in a 22 1/2″ x 26″ Frame

Provenance: Private Collection France
Purchased May 2010

Purchased at –  Expressions Gallery of Fine Art, Chicago
Learn more about the artist at  –  Marc Chagall 1887 – 1985

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