Chagall’s portrayal of himself as an artist was influenced above all by his study of Rembrandt, whose paintings he first saw in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, followed by many more hours studying the Dutch master in the Louvre in Paris. Self-portraiture for Chagall was rarely about conveying an accurate physical representation of himself. Instead his rigorous commitment to the form at this time charts his struggle with identity and his desire to filter his artistic vision from a deeply personal point of view. His self-identification in The Poet Reclining 1915 as a poet rather than an artist is telling, reinforcing his preference for the literary rather than artistic world, as suggested by his friendships in Paris.

Rembrandt also reignited Chagall’s deep commitment to the portrayal of Jewish histories, fables and identities. Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Jew 1654 had made a lasting impression on the young Jewish artist while he was studying in St Petersburg, and he absorbed the stately posture and composure of the sitter to produce years later his own portraiture series of ‘Old Jews’. These works were executed at a time when eastern European Judaism was more at risk than ever. For Chagall, being an artist was both a secular and a spiritual calling, and he embraced his identity as a Jewish artist even when doing so was a potentially dangerous act.