About this artwork
Marc Chagall had a prolific career that spanned more than eight decades of the twentieth century. While his work often exhibits influences of the contemporary movements he encountered in France and Germany, his subjects and decorative lyricism reveal his love of Russian folk art and his roots in Hasidic Judaism.
In his 1931 autobiography, My Life, Chagall related how, while visiting Vitebsk (present-day Belarus), the city in which he was born, he realized that the traditions in which he had grown up were fast disappearing and that he needed to document them. He paid a beggar to pose in his father’s prayer clothes and then painted him, limiting his palette primarily to black and white, as befit the solemnity of the subject. This portrait is noteworthy for the simplicity of its execution; nonetheless, its striking patterns, abstract background, and the slightly distorted features of the model demonstrate Chagall’s absorption of modern trends, especially Cubism.
Chagall often painted variants or replicas of works he particularly loved. The Art Institute’s Praying Jew is one of three versions of this composition. He painted the original canvas in 1914, and when he traveled back to Paris in 1923, he took this painting with him. He learned upon his return that much of the work he had left in France had been lost during World War I. This prompted him to make two versions of The Praying Jew before it left his studio: they are the present work and another in the Ca’ Pesaro, Venice; the original is now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. The later compositions differ from the original only in small details.
— Entry, Master Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013, p.121.
Together with Birth of 1911 and White Crucifixion of 1938, this painting forms the nucleus of The Art Institute of Chicago’s outstanding group of works by Marc Chagall. This masterful portrait shows that Chagall, although best known for works of a lyrical exuberance and color as in the Art Institute’s Juggler of 1943, could excel with a much more limited palette and invest his images with great dignity and power. This painting is one of two copies the artist made in 1923 before parting with the original, which had been painted in 1914 during a visit to his home town of Vitebsk (in present-day Belarus). The original is now in a private collection in Switzerland and the other copy is in the Museo d’arte moderna in Venice. As Chagall explained in his autobiography, the model for The Praying Jew was an old beggar whom the artist invited to sit for the painting, wearing his father’s prayer clothes. These consist of a tallis—a fringed shawl with black bands—and phylacteries—two small square leather boxes containing passages from the scriptures, which were bound with leather straps to the head and left arm of Jewish men during prayer. Chagall used the white-and-black color scheme and geometric patterns characterizing this ritual garb as the basis for a dazzling composition of highly abstracted shapes bearing witness to his assimilation of early modernist movements (such as Cubism, Orphism, and Expressionism). What is remarkable is that the artist did so without sacrificing any of the portrait’s emotional impact. The abstract shapes that swirl around the figure contribute to transforming this portrait into an icon or symbol for an entire world, the Jewish world of Chagall’s youth. In painting this and other pictures of Jewish life, the artist was clearly motivated by a desire to preserve a tie to a past that was threatened for him both by the passage of time and by geographical distance (Chagall had intended to return to Paris after his 1914 visit to Vitebsk, but was detained in Russia until 1923 by the outbreak of World War I and events connected with the Russian Revolution). From the perspective of the late twentieth century, this image is all the more moving, since we know that this world and its people were to face a far greater threat than Chagall could have possibly imagined in 1914.
—Entry, Margherita Andreotti, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, The Joseph Winterbotham Collection at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), p. 148-149.
- Marc Chagall
- The Praying Jew
- Oil on canvas
- Signed, l.r.: "MArc / ChAgAll"
- 46 × 35 3/16 in. (116.8 × 89.4 cm)
- Joseph Winterbotham Collection
- © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris