Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall "Creation" (1960)

The Bible has captivated artists for centuries. Renaissance artists such as Leonard Da Vinci and Michelangelo painstakingly set out to capture the glory of God. Even more recently, R. Crumb, the cartoonist known for his satirical psychedelic style, produced an illustrated version of the Book of Genesis. But, perhaps the artist who best captured the poetic nature of the Bible was Marc Chagall.

Chagall, a Jewish, Russian-French artist, lived nearly a century, from 1887-1985, and spent around a quarter of his life creating lithographs and etchings retelling the stories of the Bible, specifically the Old Testament.

Millersville University’s Eckert Art Gallery currently has fine art prints of 10 etchings and 45 lithographs from Chagall’s Bible suites in an exhibit called “Marc Chagall Etchings & Lithographs.” Unfortunately, due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the gallery is closed until further notice.

New connections

In the meantime, assistant professor of art and Eckert Art Gallery director Heidi Leitzke is sharing roughly three images a week from the exhibition on the Eckert Art Gallery Instagram account (@eckertartgallery). The photos are accompanied by detailed explanations and interpretations of each work.

“I am trying to find creative ways to allow students and community members access to the art, along with some information, history, context and interpretation,” Leitzke wrote in an email. “It is not the same as seeing all the work in person, but I do think it is a meaningful way to share a bit of light and color in this time of social distancing. It is my hope that viewers may connect with the art (digitally) and feel a bit of joy, curiosity or even a moment of peace.”

Chagall was best known for his colorful modernist paintings featuring figures disobeying the laws of gravity and Cubist-like compositional elements, but he also was working in various other types of media including drawing, ceramics, sculpture and stained glass. He also produced 105 etchings and engravings based on the Bible. Many art historians call Chagall’s Bible suite one of the crowning achievements of modern art.

Before the gallery closed, LNP | LancasterOnline was able to visit, see the work and speak to Leitzke about the exhibit.

“I love Chagall’s work for the storytelling, and he approaches these complex narratives in this light and airy, dreamlike way,” Leitzke said. “That’s probably the quality that I respond to personally the most.”

Journey to the Bible

Chagall decided to pursue the project after discussions with the famous art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Local art fans may remember Vollard’s name if they attended the Picasso exhibit at the Susquehanna Art Museum last summer. Vollard was an extremely influential art dealer that worked with many of the biggest names in art.

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Marc Chagall "Paradise" 

“They had worked together on some other projects and Vollard knew about Chagall’s deep connection to the Jewish faith, so he thought it might be an ideal subject matter for him to explore,” Leitzke said. “As research, he went to Palestine and was there for two months researching and studying and felt a deep connection to his Jewish tradition and roots through that visit. Then he returned to Paris and decided he wanted to explore this subject matter through etchings and engravings.”

Chagall then left Paris and went to Amsterdam to study the work of master printmakers such as Rembrandt van Rijn and El Greco. From 1931-39, Chagall made 65 plates. His work was interrupted by the tragic accidental death of Vollard and the acceleration of World War II throughout Europe. As the Nazis gained power, modern artists, especially Jewish artists like Chagall, were at risk. Chagall and his wife left Europe and went to live in New York City. While there, Chagall’s wife died from an illness and he stopped painting for months. When he returned to France in 1948, he resumed work on his Bible suite.

In dreams

Perhaps Chagall related to the epic narrative of the Bible because his nearly century-long life was epic itself, or perhaps it was the surreal poetry and storytelling of the Old Testament.

“I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it,” Chagall told biographer Franz Meyer. “Ever since early childhood, I have always been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me, and still seem today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”

Chagall translated those Biblical dreams through his engravings and lithographs. In his prints, the Bible stories become a living thing, writhing with strangeness, struggle and passion. And, in Chagall’s hands, the stories, already a bit surreal, become even more so.

“I’m interested in the way he manipulates space and plays with scale. It kind of calls into question the kind of space we’re looking at,” Leitzke said. “I think that kind of amplifies that kind of mystical or dreamlike qualities within the content of the work. I love when the subject matter and the way it’s made work together to tell a story.”

Leitzke, an avid student of art and an artist herself, was aware of Chagall from studying his work in college. She saw an exhibit of Chagall’s Bible engravings in Ravenna, Italy, while she was studying abroad.

“I think I was fascinated that somebody would try to illustrate the whole story of the Bible,” Leitzke said. “I was really struck by playfulness of the composition and the dramatic light and dark within the images and how that was so important in the storytelling.”

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Marc Chagall "Solomon"

She bent down to look at one of the engravings.

“This angel that’s swooping down is so beautiful and also mysterious and really weird,” Leitzke said. “I think the way that it’s an angel but also feels like a bird and is more than one thing at a time. I think I’ve always been fascinated by something that has more than one reading.”


See works by Marc Chagall with descriptions by Millersville University professor Heidi Leitzke on the Eckert Art Gallery’s Instagram, @eckertartgallery.