Half-Past Three (The Poet), 1911, Marc Chagall, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Half-Past Three (The Poet), 1911, Marc Chagall, Philadelphia Museum of Art

As a symbol of culture, freedom, and modernity, the city of Paris held a magnetic attraction for artists from Eastern Europe during the early decades of the twentieth century. Most painters and sculptors settled in a vibrant area of Paris known as Montparnasse, which was sprinkled with artists’ residences, cafes, and art galleries; it was here that Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, Moïse Kisling, Jacques Lipchitz, Louis Marcoussis, Amedeo Modigliani, Chana Orloff, Jules Pascin, Margit Pogany, Chaim Soutine, and Ossip Zadkine established studios and discovered each other’s work. This exhibition will include around 40 paintings and sculptures by these emigré artists, all of which were created in a unique atmosphere of mutual encouragement and support in Paris before the Second World War. The exhibition will focus in particular on the paintings that Chagall made between 1910 and 1920, including the artist’s early masterpiece Half Past Three (The Poet), of 1911, which has long been considered one of the great treasures of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Chagall arrived in Paris in 1910 and for the next four years he lived and worked at La Ruche (the beehive), so named because of its distinctive cylindrical shape and honeycomb-like maze of artists’ studios. Located on the southwestern fringes of Montparnasse, La Ruche was a three-story-high building with a staircase in the center and studios radiating out from its core. La Ruche opened in 1902 and, since the rent was minimal and artists’ models were supplied free of charge, it quickly became a thriving artists’ community, with its own theater and exhibition schedule. By the time Chagall moved there La Ruche had a large population of Eastern European artists who had moved to Paris to discover the most recent trends in modern art. Among the other artists to live or frequent La Ruche between 1910 and 1914 were Archipenko, Kisling, Lipchitz, Soutine, and Zadkine. Many of these emigré artists were also attracted to the religious tolerance of Paris, which provided a safe new working environment free from the pogroms and persecution that their Jewish families had endured for generations in their former homelands of Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries. The French artist Fernand Léger also worked at La Ruche during this time, as did the Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, whose libertine behavior made him one of the most colorful personalities of this bohemian enclave.

While sculptors and painters like Archipenko, Lipchitz, Marcoussis, and Zadkine experimented with the interlocking planes and sharply angled forms of Cubism, other artists attempted to reconcile modern art’s abstract geometries with the folk traditions of their native lands. Chagall’s brightly colored, folkloric paintings often reference the customs and rituals of Jewish life in Vitebsk in his native Russia (now Belorussia), although his monumental 1911 painting Half-Past Three (The Poet), made shortly after his arrival in Paris from art school in Saint Petersburg, reveals the head-spinning impact of Cubism, which encouraged him to incorporate fragmented planes and diagonal shafts of color into his compositions, which nonetheless retain a dreamlike intensity.

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