Marc Chagall: Orphée

Orphee mosaic

Orphee, Marc Chagall, 1971, mosaic. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Amanda and Emily

We entered the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in search of specific works that we had already researched. It was cold out, and we weren’t really looking to spend a lot of time exploring outside- we wanted to take the pictures and move indoors. At one point, a glint of light caught our eyes from the back corner of the garden and we were curious where this was coming from. The Orphée, a mosaic by Marc Chagall sits tucked away underneath mossy trees just inside of a wrought-iron fence. It gives the viewer the sense of privacy and intimacy of a private garden within one of the most renowned art galleries in the United States. In fact, after further research, we found out that the work was recently installed in November 2013, and appears as it has for the past 40 years in Evelyn and John Nef’s garden in Georgetown.

Evelyn and John Nef enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Marc Chagall, who gifted this work of art to the couple in the late 1960’s as an installation for their garden. The Nefs and Chagalls would vacation together every year on the French Riviera. They would go out to dinner to celebrate Evelyn and Marc’s July birthdays, and Chagall often doodled on the menu cards as tokens for the Nefs to bring home. He also illustrated over forty books for Evelyn, along with smaller drawings which she kept and bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art. Chagall visited the Nef’s home in 1968, with the intention of creating a work of art to adorn their home. However, he quickly realized that Evelyn’s meticulously decorated interior could be improved no further and decided to make a mosaic for the garden instead.

Chagall designed the mosaic in France and in 1971 commissioned Lino Melano, an Italian mosaicist, to execute his design, which was unveiled on a November evening later that year. The mosaic is characteristic of Chagall’s work- surreal, confusing, and beautifully disjointed. There are images of Orpheus, the Three Graces, a cluster of immigrants (a personal reference to Chagall and Nef’s Jewish heritage), skyscrapers, Pegasus, an angel, and a couple resting under a tree. This last image prompted Evelyn to ask Chagall if the image was meant to represent her and John, to which the artist coyly replied, “If you like.”

Even if the couple depicted is not intended to concretely symbolize Evelyn and John, Chagall’s style unwittingly alludes to Evelyn’s unconventional approach to life. To the average viewer, Chagall’s work- influenced by surrealism and fantasy movements often appears to have no rhyme or reason. It seems as if as soon as Chagall finished one image of a work, he immediately moved onto the next without a second thought. This idea of constant change and reinvention perfectly sums up Evelyn’s own story; from a puppeteer to a psychologist, an Arctic researcher to an art patron, and a financial expert to a fitness buff, Evelyn embraced every opportunity that life threw at her, carving her own exceptional path. More than anything else, Evelyn was dominated by curiosity an eagerness to master anything and everything. This desire to collect information, ideas, and works of art led her to amass a substantial collection that included works by Renoir, Picasso, Leger, Kandinsky, and her beloved Chagall mosaic. Because she had enjoyed the mosaic’s light in her garden every day since 1971, she wanted to share this joy with others, and bequeathed the work to the National Gallery before her passing in 2009. While it was an arduous task to undertake, the Gallery spent 3 years preparing, removing, cleaning, and installing the mosaic in the sculpture garden. It made its debut this past November and will be formally unveiled this coming spring.