When Evelyn Nef died at age 96 in December 2009, she left the Chagall mosaic to the National Gallery of Art, along with a trove of works that she and her husband had collected over the years and that lined the walls of their home: dozens of drawings and prints by artists such as Picasso, Whistler, Renoir, Vuillard, Kandinsky, and of course their friend Chagall.
The museum spent five weeks last spring taking the mosaic down—a project that required conservators, curators, art handlers, designers, carpenters, masons, a security force, registrars, mosaic experts, lawyers, and administrators—and now will spend the next one to two years cleaning and restoring it and, sometime in 2012, installing it in the National Gallery’s sculpture garden, as Nef desired.
“It’s a very unique and important work of art that we’re delighted to have and honored to have,” says National Gallery director Earl A. “Rusty” Powell. “It’s a tribute to her wonderful life and great memory. It meant so much to her.”
Powell says Nef talked about her desire for the mosaic to go to the National Gallery from the day he met the enthusiastic arts patron in 1992, his first year as director. Nef became even more excited about the idea after the museum’s sculpture garden went up in 1999. “There wasn’t a negotiation,” says Powell, who became a good friend of Nef’s. “She didn’t want anything in return. She was very generous of spirit.”
Evelyn Stefansson Nef, born Evelyn Schwartz, had been at various times a puppeteer, an expert on Arctic exploration, an author, a psychotherapist, and an arts benefactor who supported not only the National Gallery but also the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Washington Opera.
The high-spirited life she led in Washington with her third husband, John Nef—a life in which fresh flowers, art, music, and legendary 1930s-style parties filled the house—was a far cry from her joyless childhood in Brooklyn as the daughter of a severely depressed mother who went mute after her husband died when Evelyn was 13.
In 1932, just out of high school, Evelyn married puppeteer Bil Baird—after an intense affair with “Bucky,” famed architect Buckminster Fuller, who was twice her age and married—and she learned to make marionettes, perform, and sing.
But she and Baird divorced after four years, and in 1941 she married Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Evelyn was entranced and inspired by her new husband’s intellect and made his passion hers—becoming his research assistant, reading everything he’d written, and accompanying him on expeditions.
“Listening to him conversing with a fellow scientist or writer was like listening to a Bach two-part invention,” she wrote in her 2002 autobiography, Finding My Way: The Autobiography of an Optimist. “Stef introduced me to new words, new names, new books, unimagined joys of poetry, an explosion of new possibilities.”
She became such an expert on polar exploration that she wrote three books on the subject, lectured at Dartmouth College, where her husband began a polar-studies program, and later became president of the Society of Woman Geographers.
Stefansson, who was 34 years older than Evelyn, died in 1962. A year later, two months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Evelyn moved to Washington to take a job at the American Sociological Association, which had headquarters in the annex of the Brookings Institution.
At a party in New York in January 1964, she met John Ulric Nef, a 63-year-old widower who was a renowned economic historian and professor with a home in DC’s Kalorama and a love of all things French. Five days later, at lunch in a private dining room at Brookings, Evelyn accepted John’s proposal of marriage.