French, born Russia, 1887–1985
La Vie paysanne (Peasant Life), 1925
Oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 31 1/2 inches (100 x 80 cm)
Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1941
Marc Chagall’s early life, from his birth in 1887 until he went to St. Petersburg at age twenty, formed much of the basis of his artistic themes for the rest of his life. He grew up as Moishe Segal in Vitebsk, currently part of Belarus, which was at the time under the control of Imperial Russia, and was the oldest of nine children. His father, who worked for a herring merchant, was remembered by the artist as a tired and careworn man who went to the synagogue every day. Chagall's lively and energetic mother owned a grocery store—which might be the building seen in Peasant Life—along with other properties that she rented out. Animals were an important part of Chagall’s youth, and Peasant Life might also depict his memory of happily feeding a horse. Another horse pulls a cart in the background in a vignette that may refer to the artist’s uncle, who earned his living as a cattle dealer. Chagall’s uncle and aunt often took young Marc on buying excursions to the countryside, which the artist always remembered with pleasure. Although Chagall did at times directly address the oppression and difficulties faced by Jews in Russia, for the most part his paintings reflect the joyful side of Judaism and the beliefs of Hasidism: the importance of emotion over intellect, the consciousness of God’s presence in all things, and the joy at experiencing a loving creator all around you. This joy was cultivated through activities such as song, dance, and storytelling, reflections of which appear often in his works.
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