About This Artwork

Marc Chagall
French, born Vitebsk, Russia (present-day Belarus), 1887–1985

The Praying Jew, 1923 (one of two versions after a 1914 composition)

Oil on canvas
46 x 35 3/16 in. (116.8 x 89.4 cm)
Signed, l.r.: "MArc / ChAgAll"

Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1937.188

Unknown 725

© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

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.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, Museum of Modern Art, Summer Exhibition: Paintings and Sculpture, June 7–October 30, 1932, checklist only.

Chicago, Art Institute, A Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, June 1–November 1, 1933, p. 80, cat. 725, pl. LXXIV, as Portrait of a Rabbi, n.d.

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, The Centennial Exposition, June 6–November 29, 1936, p. 42, cat. 21, as Portrait of a Rabbi, n.d.

Toledo Museum of Art, Contemporary Movements in European Painting, November 6–December 11, 1938, p. 16, cat. 13 (ill.), as Rabbi, 1914.

New York, Museum of Modern Art, 20th Century Portraits, December 9, 1942–January 24, 1943, pp. 22, 64, and 135, as The Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914; traveled to the Baltimore Museum of Art, February 12–March 7, 1943, and the Worcester Art Museum, March 24–April 18, 1943.

Chicago, Arts Club, Marc Chagall, January 2–31, 1945, n.p., cat. 28, as The Rabbi, n.d.

New York, Museum of Modern Art, Marc Chagall, April 4–June 23, 1946, pp. 31, 34–35, 53, and 87, cat. 18 (ill.), as The Praying Jew (The Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914; traveled to Chicago, Art Institute, November 14, 1936–January 12, 1947.

Chicago, Art Institute, The Winterbotham Collection, May 23–June 22, 1947, pp. 5 and 9–10 (ill.), as the Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914.

Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Marc Chagall: Peintures 1908–1947, October 17–December 22, 1947, n.p., cat. 19, as Le Rabbin en Priere, n.d.; traveled to Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, December 8, 1947–January 12, 1948, p. 13, cat. 17, as De rabbijn in gebed, 1914.

London, Arts Council of Great Britain, organiser, Marc Chagall, p. 7, cat. 18, pl. VIII, as The Praying Jew, 1914; traveled to London, Tate Gallery, February 4–29, 1948.

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, The Winterbotham Collection of 20th Century European Paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago, October 8–November 5, 1949, no cat.

Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati Biennial Festival of the Arts, Paintings: 1900–1925, February 2–March 4, 1951, n.p., cat. 7, as The Rabbi, 1914.

Baltimore Museum of Art, Man and His Years, October 19–November 21, 1954, pp. 31–32, cat. 69 (ill.), as The Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914.

Chicago, First National Bank, Chagall Window, September 12, 1972.

London, Royal Academy of Arts, Chagall, 1985, hors. cat.; traveled to Philadelphia Museum of Art May 12–July 7, 1985.

Nagaoka, Japan, Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Masterworks of Modern Art from The Art Institute of Chicago, April 20–May 29, 1994, pp. 110–111, cat. 31 (ill.), as The Praying Jew, 1923 copy of a 1914 work; traveled to Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, June 10–July 24, 1994; and Yokohama Museum of Art, August 6–September 25, 1994.

New York, The Jewish Museum, Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change, 1890-1990, September 21, 1995–January 28, 1996, pp. 158 and 248, fig. 17, as The Praying Jew (The Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1923.

Berne, Museum of Fine Arts, Marc Chagall 1907–1917, 1995, hors. cat.; shown only at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, September 19, 1996–January 5, 1997.

Publication History

Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne 2 (February 1924), n.p. (ill.), as Le vieux rabbin, 1923.

George, Waldemar, Marc Chagall (Les Peintres Français Nouveaux, 31) (Paris: Gallimard, 1928), p. 43 (ill.), as Rabbin, 1914.

Art Digest VII:16 (May 15, 1933), p. 25 (ill.), as Rabbi, n.d.

Art Institute of Chicago, A Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, exh. cat. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1933), p. 80, cat. 725, pl. LXXIV, as Portrait of a Rabbi, n.d.

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, The Centennial Exposition, exh. cat. (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1936), p. 42, cat. 21, as Portrait of a Rabbi, n.d.

Toledo Museum of Art, Contemporary Movements in European Painting, exh. cat. (Toledo, Ohio: Toledo Museum of Art, 1938), p. 16, cat. 13 (ill.), as Rabbi, 1914.

The Jewish Layman XVI:5 (January 1942), p. 8 (ill.), as Rabbi, n.d.

“The Rabbi—Marc Chagall,” Daily News (July 11, 1942), p. 21 (ill.), as The Rabbi, n.d.

Museum of Modern Art, 20th Century Portraits, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1942), pp. 22, 64, and 135, as The Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914.

Arts Club, Marc Chagall, exh. cat. (Chicago: Arts Club, 1945), n.p., cat. 28, as The Rabbi, n.d.

“Marc Chagall,” Emporium CIV:623–624 (November–December 1946), p. 208 (ill.), as Rabbino, 1914.

Venturi, Lionello, Marc Chagall (1945), cat. 10.

Frankfurter, Alfred M., “The Daring Chagall,” Art News XLV:3 (May 1946), p. 25 (ill.), as The Praying Jew (Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914.

Sweeney, James Johnson, Marc Chagall, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946), pp. 31, 34–35, 53, and 87, cat. 18 (ill.), as The Praying Jew (The Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914.

Art Institute of Chicago, The Winterbotham Collection, exh. cat. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1947), pp. 5 and 9–10 (ill.), as The Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914.

Musée National d'Art Moderne, Marc Chagall: Peintures 1908–1947, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée National d'Art Moderne, 1947), n.p., cat. 19, as Le Rabbin en Priere, n.d.

Maritain, Raïssa, Chagall ou l’orage Enchanté (Geneva: Éditions des trios Collines, 1948), pp. 40 and 70 (ill.), as Le rabbin en prière, 1914–1923.

Arts Council of Great Britain, Marc Chagall, exh. cat. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1948), p. 7, cat. 18, pl. VIII, as The Praying Jew, 1914.

Ayrton, Michael, Chagall (London, 1948), pp. 3–4, pl. 4.

___, “The Art of Marc Chagall,” The Listener XXXIX:994 (February 12, 1948), p. 254 (cover ill.), as The Rabbi of Vitebsk, n.d.

Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati Biennial Festival of the Arts, Paintings: 1900–1925, exh. cat. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Cincinnati Art Museum, 1951), n.p., cat. 7, as The Rabbi, 1914.

Masterpieces in The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago: 1952), n.p. (ill.), as The Praying Jew (The Rabbi of Vitebsk), n.d.

Baltimore Museum of Art, Man and His Years, exh. cat. (Baltimore, Md.: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1954), pp. 31–32, cat. 69 (ill.), as The Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914.

Art Institute of Chicago, Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago: A Catalogue of the Picture Collection (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1961), pp. 74 and 469 (ill.), as The Praying Jew (The Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914.

Brion, Marcel, Chagall (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1961), pp. 34–35 and 83 (ill.), as The Jew at Prayer, 1914.

Barry, Edward, “A Legacy that Grows—Winterbotham Collection,” The Chicago Tribune (August 25, 1963), p. F4.

Speyer, A. James, “Twentieth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture,” Apollo 84:55 (September 1966), p. 222, as Rabbi of Vitebsk, 1914.

El Mundo de los Museos, The Art Institute of Chicago (Madrid: Editorial Codex, S. A., 1967), pp. 13, 70 and 72, fig. 54.

Arnason, H. H., History of Modern Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968), p. 284, fig. 453, as The Praying Jew, 1914.

Maxon, John, The Art Institute of Chicago (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970), p. 271 (ill), as The Praying Jew, 1914.

Kunstmuseum Bern, Sammlung im Obersteg, exh. cat. (Bern: Kunstmuseum Bern, 1975), n.p.

Davies, Horton and Hugh Davies, Sacred Art in a Secular Society (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1978), pp. 21, pl. 6, 45, and 10, as The Praying Jew (The Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914.

Art Institute of Chicago, 100 Masterpieces (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1978), pp. 130–131 (ill.), as The Praying Jew (The Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914.

Speyer, A. James and Courtney Graham Donnell, Twentieth Century European Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 36, no. 1D1.

Compton, Susan, Chagall, exh. cat. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1985), p. 186.

Wood, James N. and Katharine C. Lee, Master Paintings in The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1988), p. 130 (ill.), as The Praying Jew (Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1923.

Barbican Art Gallery, Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in 20th Century Art, exh. cat. (London: Barbican Art Gallery, 1990), pp. 25, fig. 17, and p. 26, as The Praying Jew, 1923.

Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Masterworks of Modern Art from The Art Institute of Chicago, exh. cat. (Nagaoka, Japan: Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, 1994), pp. 110–111, cat. 31 (ill.), as The Praying Jew, 1923 copy of a 1914 work.

Baal-Teshuva, Jacob (editor), Chagall: A Retrospective (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin, 1995), pp. 134 (ill.), as The Praying Jew, 1923.

Dampérat, Marie-Hêlène, Sylvie Forestier, and Eric de Chassey, L’ABCdaire de Chagall (Paris: Flammarion, 1995), pp. 70–71 (ill.), as Le Rabbin de Vitebsk, 1923.

Baal-Teshuva, Jacob, Marc Chagall 1887–1985 (Kologne: Taschen, 1998), pp. 113–114 (ill.), as Praying Jew, 1923.

Marc Chagall: Ursprung und Wege, exh. cat. (Munich: Prestel, 1998), p. 214, as Der Jude in Schwarz-Weiß.

Voyages & rencontres de Marc Chagall, 1923–1939, exh. cat. (Nice, France: Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, 1998), pp. 42 and 74 (ill.), as Le Juif en noir et blanc.

Wood, James N. and Debra N. Mancoff, Treasures from The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2000), p. 247 (ill.), as The Praying Jew, 1923 copy of 1914 work.

Harshav, Benjamin, Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World: The Nature of Chagall’s Art and Iconography (New York: Rizzoli, 2006), pp. 137 and 141, no. 81, as The Praying Jew, 1923.

Ownership History

Sold by Pierre Loeb (1897–1964), Paris, to Patrick M. Sweeney, New York, 1924 [letter from James Sweeney of September 1, 1975 in curatorial file]; sold to the Art Institute, 1937.




View mobile website