Two years before the present work was painted, Chagall began his studies as an art student under Jehuda Pen, who was well established in Vitebsk. "Although Chagall recalled his first teacher with great affection, he also recalled that, upon his entry into Pen’s studio and his first encounter with this local masters works, he had ‘already decided that I’ll never paint like that.’ Chagall knew that, for himself, ‘the essential thing in art, painting, a painting different from the painting everyone else does.’ He soon became notable among Pen’s students and the only one who painted with violet” (ibid., p. 12). Although stylistically Pen would not prove highly influential to the young artist's work, the environment of his studio gave Chagall a creative space to explore as well as access to a network of other young people from his hometown with similar interests. One of these colleagues, Victor Mekler, persuaded Chagall to travel to Saint Petersburg in the winter of 1907 where he would enroll in art school and significantly broaden his world view. Over the course of the next several years Chagall would travel frequently back and forth between Vitebsk and his new life in Saint Petersburg.
Portrait de la soeur de l’artiste relates closely to a series of family portraits painted from 1907-10, and in particular My Sister Manya, from 1909, where objects and sitters are brought close together in the composition to convey an immediacy of perception. With its strong, bold lines and traditional Russian motifs, Portrait de la soeur de l’artiste should be appreciated context of the Jack of Diamonds group, and in particular, the neo-primitivist movement pioneered by Natalia Goncharova and Ilya Mashkov, who consciously reverted to Russia's folk art in order to create a genuine and direct mode of representation. This would have no doubt struck a chord with the young Chagall, whose compositions drew heavily on the visual and aural traditions surrounding his Hassidic Jewish upbringing. Writing about the present work Jeannene M. Pryblyski states that “While the particular identity of this sister remains unnamed, a sense of intimacy with his subject is implied in the unpretentious domesticity of the scene. This refined quality of elegance, discovered in simplicity, lends the portrait its extraordinary power" (I and the Village: Early Works by Marc Chagall, Op. cit., p. 14).
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