Marc Chagall was born Moyshe Shagal in 1887 in Vitebsk, a city with a largely Jewish population in Russia’s Pale of Settlement (now Belarus). The Hasidic religion and music of Chagall’s community had a significant impact upon his formation as an artist, as did his large family.
Chagall’s first art teacher was Yehuda Pen. An academic realist painter of rural landscapes, Pen taught Chagall draughtsmanship and inspired him to emphasise the poetic Jewish themes in his work. From 1907 to 1910 Chagall studied in St Petersburg, first with Nicholas Roerich – who promoted the study of Russia’s rich icon painting tradition and was acquainted with Paul Gauguin – and then at the Zvantseva School where he joined the class of Léon Bakst, who introduced him to Henri Matisse and fauvism. Equally formative for Chagall was the time he spent at the Hermitage Museum.
In May 1911, with the support of his patron, the politician Max Vinaver, Chagall moved to Paris – the crucible for artistic advancement as he saw it. The early influences on Chagall’s work multiplied once he was living in Paris. Paintings such as Nude in the Garden 1911 and The Poet with the Birds 1911 demonstrate his awareness of the heightened colour, thick impasto technique and articulated brushwork of Vincent van Gogh, while the raw surface and gestural energy of Self Portrait (Head with Nimbus) 1911 relay the impact Matisse and fauvism had on his art.