Portraits and Self-Portraits

Chagall's self-portraits are particularly revealing. His drawings, paintings and prints of himself, in full or partial figure, sometimes with only his head visible, reflect the artist's moods; he smiles, grimaces, or looks out at us with serious eyes. Frequently, he is alone, engrossed in the act of painting. He repeatedly paints and draws himself as a lover, together with his wife Bella, soaring above Vitebsk or over a bouquet of flowers. At times, these portraits include a wealth of biographical information, opening a door to what was transpiring in his life at a particular moment.

Chagall's earliest known self-portrait is dated 1907, when the artist was twenty years old. By 1909 he had already adopted the pose of a painter, clearly conscious of his skill. While in Paris for the first time, he created the famous Self-portrait with Seven Fingers, as well as some examples in drawing and watercolor, but at no time was the self-portrait more prominent in his work than during the first years of his return to Vitebsk in 1914. During this period of introspection, he repeatedly painted himself and other family members. Thereafter Chagall would paint himself again and again in a wide variety of situations. Indeed, few artists have found so many different ways of integrating their own face, as well as their private and professional personas, into their pictorial universe.

Other artists, such as Hermann Struck, who taught Chagall etching, have given us different interpretations of the artist, showing him as they saw him, rather then as he viewed himself. Of special interest are the renderings of Chagall by photographers, many of whom were among his friends and acquaintances during various periods in his life. These portrait-photographs were part of a general trend in Paris, starting in the 1920s, for artists to paint and photograph one another. Chagall must have been a particular favorite of photographers; not only does he seem to enjoy the sessions, he also fully participates in "performing" for the camera. In these carefully posed and staged portrait-photographs a kind of conspiracy appears to exist between the photographer and the sitter to present the artist as an archetype of a dreamy-eyed, poetic personality. In most images he is either very serious or very thoughtful, while others show him in the typical nineteenth-century pose of the artist with palette and brushes before the easel. On rare occasions, he appears with his wife and/or daughter.

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