(See cover and the paintings by Marc Chagall throughout this issue)

Marc Chagall’s art is his diary; its vocabulary is dreams, memories and shimmering colors. The message is deeply personal, but the art carries a message for all mankind.

Chagall was born on July 7, 1887, in Vitebsk, Russia, a village in the Pale of Settlement, the region assigned the Jews by the czarist government. One of nine children born into a Hasidic Jewish family, Chagall’s artistic talent was recognized early. He first exhibited his paintings in Moscow in 1910 as a young man of 23; the same year he left Russia to live in Paris.

This move was the first of many for Chagall during a life in which he experienced the anguish and dislocation of two World Wars and the Russian Revolution. On a visit to Russia in 1914, Chagall was trapped by the onset of World War I, but during this enforced stay he met and married his beloved Bella Rosenfeld. Bella’s beautiful face and that of his second wife Valentina (Vava), whom he married eight years after Bella’s death in 1944, often appear in Chagall’s paintings.

Already famous in the West, Chagall returned in 1923 to France, where he resided for much of his long, creative life, adding the images of Paris to his repertoire. Defying popular artistic conventions, Chagall created a unique, imaginative world in what he called “an art of pure color.”

Though Chagall became a French citizen in 1937, he was never far from the dreams of his Russian boyhood. His paintings often portray his memories of the villagers and animals of Vitebsk. He drew inspiration from Russian Orthodox iconography and the Russian circus. The Kabbalah, a collection of Jewish mystical writings, with its fantastic legends, comes to life in Chagall’s work—often in radiantly colored fantasies and phantasmagoric images.

One of the themes Chagall returned to again and again was the “biblical message.” To Chagall the Bible embodied the “dream of mankind.”

“Since childhood, [the Bible) has filled me with a sight of the destiny of the world, and inspired me in my work,” Chagall said during an interview near the end of his life. “In moments of doubt, its high poetic grandeur and wisdom have brought me peace. The Bible, for me, is like second nature.”

The painting “The White Crucifixion” in the Art Institute of Chicago (1938); the stained-glass windows in the Cathedral at Metz, France (“The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “Jacob’s Dream” and “Moses Before the Burning Bush,” 1958); and the tapestries for the Knesset in Jerusalem (“The Prophet Isaiah,” “Exodus” and “Entry into Jerusalem,” 1969)—works separated by location, media and purpose, all have one thing in common—the “biblical message” of Marc Chagall.

Though biblical themes were featured in Chagall’s early work, including his 1910 painting, “The Holy Family,” the most intense development of Chagall’s biblical work followed his three-month trip to Palestine in 1931. Before the visit, Chagall later recounted, “I couldn’t see the Bible, I could only dream it.” The trip, the result of a commission by the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard to illustrate the Bible, brought the Bible and its stories to life for Chagall. After returning to Paris, Chagall painted 40 gouaches (see Chagall’s “Jacob Weeping Over Joseph’s Coat,” “Joseph, Goatherd” and “Joseph Is Recognized by His Brothers” in this issue) that were to serve as models for a series of etchings to be used as illustrations for the Vollard Bible. Forced by the Nazi occupation to flee France, he came to the United States in 1941. Chagall did not return to France until 1948.

Settled once again in his adopted country, Chagall began work in 1954 on the 17 large oil paintings that would be his crowning contribution to the “biblical message.” These 17 paintings, along with the 105 etchings from the Vollard Bible, 39 biblical gouaches, almost 200 sketches, drawings, pastels and smaller oil paintings, and 75 lithographs form the core of Chagall’s biblical legacy to the world, now housed in the Musée National Message Biblique in Nice, France.

Marc Chagall painted vigorously almost to the day of his death at the age of 97 in March 1985.