On a trip back to Washington last spring, my relatively short must-see list included something I had read of years before, but had little hope of seeing at the time. Thanks to the generosity of its owner, that has changed.
Shaded by a grove of trees in the northwest corner of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden there stands a mosaic, embedded in a cement wall. It is a monument to a long-standing friendship and is part of the legacy of a beloved artist.
John and Evelyn Stefansson Nef were collectors of modern art who traveled often in pursuit of their passion. While visiting in Nice, they met the artist Marc Chagall (1887 – 1995) and his wife, and so began a friendship that would last for many years. During a visit to their Georgetown home in 1968, Chagall observed:
“Nothing for the house. The house is perfect as it is. But I will do something for the garden: a mosaic.”
Chagall returned to France and designed the wall in his studio there. He commissioned the Italian mosaicist Lino Melano to execute his design. It is fashioned of Murano glass, Carrara marble, and stones from Italy, and measures approximately 10 feet by 17 feet. It is entitled Orphée. Typical of Chagall, it incorporates figures from Greek mythology: Orpheus and his lute, the Three Graces, and the winged Pegasus, with modern, perhaps autobiographical references.
Melano supervised its installation in the Nef garden, and its completion was celebrated in 1971, with the artist, then 84, in attendance. It was one of the first large-scale outdoor mosaics by Chagall to be installed in this country, and the only one in private hands.
When Evelyn Nef died in 2009, she left the work to the National Gallery of Art as part of a generous bequest.
After laborious conservation and restoration, the gift that stood for many years in the Nef garden was installed in a setting that echoes its original home. Chagall’s house gift is now on view for the pubic to enjoy.
(Full disclosure: We had a bit of trouble finding it, and most of the people we asked were tourists and knew no more than we did. Thanks to one of the people working in the cafe for clarifying. If you face the cafe, it is just off to your right and down a little slope. )
The Sculpture Garden is located on the National Mall between 7th and 9th Street on Constitution Avenue, N.W., adjacent to the West Wing of the National Gallery. Admission is free.