Only her friends and neighbors, knowledgeable art lovers, and congregants of the synagogue across the street knew about the wondrous secret in Evelyn Nef’s Georgetown garden. One of Washington’s truly hidden treasures, it shimmered in the sunlight with turquoises, corals, and golds and brought cars to a screeching halt when drivers coming down 28th Street caught a glimpse over the garden wall. For more than 35 years, the masterpiece was Nef’s pride and joy.
A gorgeous mosaic of Murano glass and natural colored Italian stone, the work of art had been a gift to Nef and her husband, John, an economic historian, from a very close friend: Marc Chagall.
One of the most famous artists of the 20th century, Chagall, along with his wife, Valentine, or “Vava,” spent summers with the Nefs in the south of France. When Chagall visited the couple at their Georgetown home in 1968, he told them he wanted to do something for the residence, later amending his plan: “No, the house is perfect. I’ll make a mosaic for the garden.”
Evelyn pictured a small plaque she could hang on the garden wall. But Chagall—who created works in nearly every medium, designing stage sets and soaring stained-glass windows as well as painting the ceiling of the Paris Opera—had something else in mind, something as colorful and grand as his longtime Washington friends.
The untitled mosaic that was unveiled in the back yard near 28th and N streets in 1971, with Chagall’s signature in the lower right corner and the 84-year-old artist himself in attendance, was spectacular—a 10-by-17-foot work that was unlike anything he’d ever done but incorporated many of his favorite themes. “Everything you want in a Chagall,” says Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art.
The Nefs cherished the mosaic, seeing it as an expression of Chagall’s fondness for them. Not a day passed by that Evelyn didn’t take notice of the lustrous work of art in her garden and how the stones changed hue with the weather and time of day. When John Nef died in 1988, she buried his ashes at the base of the cherished masterpiece, in the shadow of their tall magnolia tree.
But she also loved sharing her treasure. The child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Evelyn would leave her garden door open on the Jewish High Holy Days so those leaving services at Kesher Israel synagogue across the street could stop in for a contemplative moment in a beautiful setting. She threw garden parties in May when the flowers were in bloom.
All along, she planned for her beloved mosaic to live on beyond her years in a place where it could be shared by millions.