Two Unpublished Autobiographical Documents of Chagall

Yakov Bruk

Magazine issue: 
Special issue. Marc Chagall "BONJOUR, LA PATRIE!"

The present publication reproduces Chagall's texts completely as they are. Spelling and punctuation are adapted to modern literary norms. In some cases the text is subdivided into paragraphs absent in the author's original. Those words that were written by the author in a reduced form or were not finished are given in square brackets. Words underlined by the author are given in italics.

Two unpublished autobiographical documents of Chagall are preserved in the Manuscript Department of the Tretyakov Gallery.

The first, “Marc Zakharovich Chagall. On Myself” was received in 1935-36 as an item from the private fund of Piotr I. Neradovski. This is probably the only hand-written example of Chagall's autobiography, relating to his Russian years. Its origin is still unknown, though it can be supposed that it was written for Neradovski - an outstanding museum official, who in 1910-20 was the head of the Art Department of the Russian Museum and chief of the department of New Russian Art. Neradovski was really enthusiastic in his endless attempts to gain and systematize the collection of contemporary Russian art, as well as to obtain some information about the artists. In response to his requests, many then-contemporary artists sent their biographical information to the Russian Museum. It is likely that Chagall wrote his autobiographical notes at Neradovski's demand.

Both had known each other personally since the time of NAR- COMPROS (the Council of People's Commissars for Education), when they were active participants in its cooperating departments: Chagall worked for the Board of Artistic Affairs, Neradovski for the Board of Museums and on the preservation of monuments of art and ancient art. The date on the manuscript says that it was written in Petrograd in the Russian Museum on March 5 1921; thus it might indicate Chagall visited the Russian Museum on that day and handed the manuscript over to Neradovski. There is an indirect confirmation of their possible meeting - a miraculously “live” document: a certificate given to Neradovski on March 5 1921, which states that he was urgently to be sent on a business trip from Petrograd to Moscow to participate in the work of the All-Russian Restoration Commission1.

Chagall's note “On Myself is not traditional or standard in any way. It resembles rather a sparkling literary text coloured with the author's special intonation. At that time Chagall was a young man of about 35, and the events from his childhood and youth remained fresh. Thus, he gives very precise, carefully-selected information. And unlike in his own later remembrances Chagall states that he came to Paris for the first time in 1911 (this fact has been confirmed by the recent publication of his letters to Alexander Romm)2, and not in 1910 as has been commonly noted in a number of biographies. Though striving for brevity, Chagall does not restrict himself to a mere sequence of events and personalities, rather he expresses his own attitude to them, and eagerly gives vivid commentaries on them. In just such a way he portrays his parents with sincere filial love, or formulates his respect for Bakst. “On Myself” was written at the time Chagall was working on his memoirs “My Life” (Ma Vie), and the text gives a chance to form an opinion on the style and verbal character of the lost Russian original of that famous book.

  1. Ibid. Ф. 31. Ед. хр. 1968. Л. 6.
  2. Bruk Ya.V. Mark Chagall i Alexandre Romm. To the publication of Marc Chagall's letters to A. Romm (1910-1915) and memoirs of ARomm "Marc Chagall" (1944)/Iskusstvoz- nanie 2/03 (XXII), Moscow, 2003. p. 580.


On Myself
Marc Zakharovich Chagall

I was born in the town of Vitebsk in 1887 into a Jewish family1. From an early age, my father was a sales-clerk at the herring vendor, where up until the revolution he toiled for a pittance. By nature, he was a timid man, gentle and meek. Although very religious, he did not look like a “typical” Jew - but rather like a Belorussian peasant.

My mother was a simple woman (illiterate like my father) but full of energy; she died at the age of 45, and I owe everything to her. I cannot think of a better way to sum up my gratitude to this extraordinary woman. She is dead now, but the treasure of her talent is alive in me. She knew how to love and had understanding. She used to say: “My son, I do know you are talented, but I pity you, wouldn't you better be a 'bookkeeper'...?” She would correct my works, and for me, her opinion was of decisive importance.

I attended Cheder2 in my childhood. I don't remember anything, except for a street lamp in the evening and two or three Melameds3, with no traces of the three “Rs” in my head. By the age of 13 I read “droshe” [a sermon] by heart over one-and-a-half hours; as for “Tfilin”4 (prayer headdresses), I forgot absolutely everything about them.

By the age of 14, thanks to the great efforts of my mother I was accepted at the official municipal four-year school5. It was not easy for my mother to get me admitted to the municipal school. I did not seem to be very keen on my studies, and I even remember having to repeat one year. Not surprisingly, I would have preferred to be drawing or swimming, or playing games with other boys, or “courting” girls.

In 19076 I graduated from the municipal school and worked for a local photographer where I studied retouching photographic negatives. At that time my imagination was captured by the sign of a local artist - Yury Pen: “School of Drawing and Painting”, so that I, with 27 rubles from my father, dashed to Petrograd to study7. Those 27 rubles evaporated, and I could not even afford to buy a ten-kopeck plate of “zrazys” [meat balls]. There were days when I nearly fainted [from exhaustion and hunger]. Having contacted the sculptor Ilya Ginzburg8, I was offered a monthly allowance of ten rubles from Baron David Ginzburg9. I took an exam to enter the Baron Stieglitz School of Technical Design10, but failed it.

I joined the School [of Drawing] of the [Imperial] Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts11. I don't know what was going on with me there; on the one hand I was praised and given grants, received a scholarship12, on the other hand, I felt complete hopelessness at the idea of going on in this way ...

With Bakst and Dobuzhinsky13 teaching at the school, I met my destiny. Bakst changed my life for ever. I will never forget that man. In 1911 he invited me to Paris to assist him, but there [in Paris] we parted. I found myself in the milieu of contemporary European artists. At the Louvre, when I was standing in front of Manet's “Olympia” or the works of Courbet and Delacroix, I came to understand what Russian art was, and what the West meant. I was captivated by the moderation and taste of French art.

Over three years in Paris I began little by little to escape from poverty. I signed a contract with a French gallery “Malpel”14, and at last, my one-man exhibition was organized in the “Der Sturm” gallery in Berlin in 1914. I travelled to Berlin to the opening of the exhibition, and in three months I left for Russia to attend the wedding of my sister15.

The war broke out, the revolution broke out, but I am still here. All my works are trapped in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris16. In 1915 in Russia (Vitebsk) where I settled, there were 60 of my studies and pictures17. I depicted almost everything I could see from my window, I painted my people and beggars, and exhibited them in Russia18. From the first days of the revolution I founded the People's School of Arts in Vitebsk, calling on some artists to come and teach - Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and Kazimir Malevich joined me19. In May 1920 my family (my wife and my daughter20) and myself left Vitebsk for Moscow where I had been invited by the State Jewish Chamber Theatre (Bol. Chernysh., 12) to work on a series of murals. I painted seven major pictures, one of which, 312 by 140 inches, was “Introduction to the Jewish Theatre”21; the others were “Music”, “Dance”, “Drama”, “Literature”, “Love on the Stage” and a frieze, “Wedding Feast”.

March 5 1921
Artist Marc Chagall,
Petrograd, The Russian Museum


State Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. Ф. 31. Ед. хр. 2073. Published in the French: Marc Chagall. Les anne'es russes, 1907-1922. Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Paris, 1995, FI 246.

  1. The painter's father, Khatskel-Mordukhai (Zakhar) Shagal (c. 1863-1921), and mother, Feiga-Ita Chernina (c. 1870-1915) both came from the small shtetl Liozno, some twenty-five miles from Vitebsk. They were cousins, they married in 1886 and, according to family legend, moved to Vitebsk several months after their marriage, shortly before the birth of their first child.
  2. Cheder - Jewish primary school for boys.
  3. Melamed - A teacher in the Cheder.
  4. Tfilin - two small black boxes containing texts of prayers. On weekdays men are to fix one of the boxes to their head and the other one to their hand. Boys are prepared for the ceremony of "placing the tfilin" two months before they turn 13.
  5. The next phrase is crossed out: Jews were subject to discrimination; they had to pay a 50-ruble fee. In autumn 1900 Chagall was admitted to the Vitebsk municipal four-year vocational school which he supposedly finished in 1905.
  6. A slip of the pen in the manuscript: In 1917.
  7. In 1906 Chagall attended Yury Pen's art classes; in the winter of 1906-1907 he left Vitebsk for St. Petersburg.
  8. Ilya Ginzburg (1859-1939), a sculptor and one of the founders of the Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts.
  9. David Ginzburg (1857-1910), a connoisseur of oriental art, writer and public activist. During 1909-10 he headed St. Petersburg's Jewish community and the Society for the Distribution of Education among the Jews in Russia.
  10. The Baron Stieglitz School of Technical Design is meant.
  11. The School of Drawing attached to the Imperial Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts is meant. From 1906 to 1917 it was directed by Nikolai Roerich. On his visit to Leningrad in June 1973, Chagall wished to visit the house where the School was located. In an interview given shortly before leaving, he gave some details of this visit. "When in Leningrad, I wanted to find the building of the former Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts. There was such a Society before the revolution. At that time I was not accepted to the Academy of Art, probably because I painted knees poorly, but I was accepted to this Society. Well, we are travelling in a car through Leningrad, and I ask the driver to take me to Morskaya street. We arrive. I am looking, looking - and finally here is the familiar house. The sign says: "Artists' Union". I open the door and ask an old-aged woman, the door-keeper: "Madam, is it the place where the Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts was located long ago?". "Yes, comrade, this is the place, for sure," she replies with some kind of astonishment. Meanwhile I myself recognize the place - here is the familiar stair-case, bonjour, my stair-case! I stepped up, and I asked to make a photo of myself to keep it in my memory, since a great deal is connected with this building in my life" (Mar N. Marc Chagall: Mne ochen' zdes' ponravilos'... / Literaturnaya Gazeta, 1973, June 20).
  12. On entering the School, Chagall skipped two years and enrolled straightaway in the third-year class; thus he became a student with a scholarship. In April 1907 he was marked and praised in a School report, and awarded a scholarship of six rubles; from September 1 1907 to September 1 1908 he received a monthly scholarship of 15 rubles.
  13. The Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting is meant, at that time existing under the name of the "Bakst and Dobuzhinsky School of Painting", known also as the "Bakst School (Academy)".
  14. In May 1914 Chagall signed a contract with the Parisian gallerist and art entrepreneur Charles Malpel, according to which Malpel was to make a monthly payment equal to 250 francs, and Chagall passed him the rights to his new small-sized works. The payment was made only once, in the middle of May.
  15. In March 1914 Chagall came to Berlin from Paris to attend the opening of his first big one-man exhibition at Herwarth Walden's gallery "Der Sturm". On June 15 he left Berlin for Vitebsk to attend his sister Zina's wedding.
  16. Chagall means his works which were left in Berlin with Herwarth Walden, as well as three big-size paintings ("The Fiddler", "Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers", and "Maternity" - all painted in 1912 and 1913), exhibited in 1914 at the Salon des Independents in Paris, and transferred later to Amsterdam, where these works were acquired by the art collector Renault.
  17. The paintings and drawings which made up his "Vitebsk Series" (19141915) are meant.
  18. Paintings and drawings from the "Vitebsk Series" were first displayed at the "Year of 1915" exhibition, and then at the "Knave of Diamonds" exhibition in 1916.
  19. Chagall initiated the opening of the People's School of Arts in Vitebsk in June 1919. In April, after Dobuzhinsky's departure, Chagall took over the duties of director. In addition, he ran a "Free Painting Studio".
  20. On July 25 1915 Chagall and Bella Rosenfeld were married. On May 18 1916 their daughter Ida was born.
  21. The second dimension is given incorrectly: the height is four "arshins" (71.12 cm); the correct size is 284 x 787 cm.


The second published autographical document dates to the time of Chagall's visit to Moscow in June 1973 - it is the text of a brief address he made at the vernissage at the Tretyakov Gallery. As is known, Chagall came to the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Soviet Ministry of Culture. He arrived from Paris with his wife Vava and Nadya Leger on June 43, and on June 5 the exhibition of his work opened in the Tretyakov Gallery. In a few very short newspaper clips it was referred to as an exhibition of the lithographs donated by the master to the Soviet Union4.

In fact, Chagall's one-man show at the Tretyakov Gallery was considerably broader: in a rather small room on the lower floor (at that time it was Room 31) Chagall's works from the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery were displayed for a few days, while on the upper floor (at that time in the Serov Room 21) his famous murals made for the Jewish Kamerny (Chamber) Theatre in 1920 were unrolled from the drums and signed by the artist.

In spite of such complete “secrecy” and the approach of the media, the opening ceremony was overcrowded. The presence of the Soviet Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva and the Ambassador of France to the Soviet Union Jacques Vimont accentuated its diplomatic level. Chagall made a short speech which can be regarded as almost a creative “will” of the 85-year-old master, full of his deep speculations on the process of creativity. This speech was both a welcome and a farewell to his Motherland. Chagall was profoundly impressed by his visit to Moscow and Leningrad, where he had the opportunity to attend museums and meet people. In an interview taken the day before Chagall's departure he said: “People who can work hard and live such an interesting life and love art with all their hearts - all of this - I should assume - was a great surprise for me in Moscow, which I had no opportunity to visit for more than 50 years. <...> I wish I could come here two or three times more, and paint a dozen good works inspired by my Motherland.”5 Before departure Chagall donated a hand-written copy of his brief addresss at the opening ceremony at the Tretyakov Gallery, together with an album of photographs made at the Gallery during his visit, with his sincere words of gratitude6. All these materials were passed to the Manuscript Department of the Tretyakov Gallery on June 11.

  1. See: Voznesenskii A. Chagall's Gala-Retrospective/Chagall. Vozvrashchenie mastera. Po materialam vystavki v Moskve k 100-letiju so dnya rozhdeniya khudozhnika. M., 1988, p. 15.
  2. Mishin Yu. Dar Khudozhnika./ Izvestiya, 1973, June 6, Dar Marka Shagala/Moskovski Khudozhnik, 1973, June 9.
  3. Mar N. Marc Chagall: Mne ochen' zdes' ponravilos'... /Liter- aturnaya Gazeta, 1973, June 20.
  4. State Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. Ф. 90. Ед. хр. 822.


A Brief Address at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow June 5 1973

I am grateful to you for your invitation to visit my motherland after fifty years of living abroad, and to visit the Tretyakov Gallery in which some of my pictures are exhibited; you cannot see my eyes filled with tears. Well, it may seem very strange, but having been very far from my motherland, I - in my soul - remained connected to her, and to the motherland of my predecessors.

I was always here [with my motherland] in my soul.

I was like a tree from my motherland growing in the air But nevertheless I had been growing ... In the end there is an eternal problem of the colour or of “a chemical process”, as I often would say...

As well as far-away Asia or Africa, artists from Europe and America were eager to come to Rome, or later to Paris.

When I was a boy I think there was some kind of colour in my soul, which dreamed of some special blue tone, and my instinct was driving me to some place where this colour was created. And as some time ago the Russian artists Brullov and Ivanov went to Rome, some young contemporary artists went to Paris.

I will not touch upon these delicate matters right now.

Anything can be said about me - whether I am a great artist or whether I am not great - but in my colours I remained devoted to my parents from Vitebsk - and what the colour is, that is the question.

Colour is blood for the body, like poetry for the poet.

Everybody knows what love is like ... Colour in itself is this very love which sometimes gives birth to Mozart, Masaccio, Titian and Rembrandt - and I'd like to shake you all by the hand today. I enjoy talking about love, because I am crazy about a certain natural colour visible in the eyes of people and in pictures. Only you have to see it with special eyes - as if you had just been born.





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