John Nef had founded the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and brought to the school a galaxy of authors, artists, and thinkers to speak—everyone from T.S. Eliot to Igor Stravinsky to Frank Lloyd Wright and Marc Chagall. Chagall stayed at John Nef’s place when he came to the university and saw, among the many works of art on the professor’s walls, two of his own paintings. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
Evelyn and John sent a wedding announcement to Chagall, who embellished it with a sketch of a woman holding a bouquet of flowers and sent it back to the newlyweds. The Chagall-adorned announcement hung in the Nefs’ bedroom, beneath a Chagall gouache of a Purim festival, and is among many such personal drawings in the collection Nef left to the National Gallery.
The Nefs and Chagalls began vacationing together at Cap d’Antibes, a resort in the south of France, where each year they celebrated Evelyn and Marc’s July birthdays with a bash at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. Chagall liked to draw a little sketch or watercolor on the printed menu card—always the same menu: caviar and rack of lamb—with the seal from the hotel as a woman’s hat. The menu cards, with personal dedications, are also part of the National Gallery bequest.
Chagall designed the sprawling mosaic for the Nefs at his studio in France and hired Italian mosaic artist Lino Melano—who created mosaics for Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Georges Braque—to translate his brilliant gouache painting to rough-cut stone and glass and then come to the United States to install it.
The main figures in the mosaic are from Greek mythology: Orpheus and his lute, the Three Graces, and the winged horse, Pegasus, all to the right of three golden concentric suns. In the left corner is a scene of immigrants crossing a wide blue ocean to come to America, a nod to Chagall’s own history: During World War II, the Jewish artist had been smuggled out of Nazi-occupied France by the International Rescue Committee and found refuge in New York. In the lower right corner of the mosaic are two lovers sitting under a tree. “John and me?” Evelyn asked Chagall. He replied: “If you like.”
The work of art “doesn’t have any reason to hang together,” says Harry Cooper of the National Gallery, “but I think it does.”
Shipping the mosaic to the United States and installing it wasn’t easy. The Nefs had to erect a 30-foot wall to hold the artwork. Chagall wanted a smooth, light-colored wall, but the DC Fine Arts Commission insisted it be brick to fit in with Georgetown architecture. So a brick wall went up. Chagall declared it a cauchemar—a nightmare—then asked for a brush and began to mix paint until he found a suitable shade of gray to cover the brick.
The mosaic was shipped to Dulles Airport in ten panels, each backed with its own iron grid laid into the concrete and then covered with newspaper. Once in the wall, the panels were secured together with iron clasps. Then Melano, the mosaic artist, placed the final stones in mortar at all the seams where the panels came together as well as around the periphery.
“On November 1, 1971,” Evelyn wrote of the unveiling, “Marc and Vava arrived, the French Ambassador Charles Lucet made a speech, John made an exquisite, short speech in French, and then we all traipsed out to the garden in the fading late-afternoon light. The artificial lights were turned on and the dazzling display appeared to a hushed silence followed by a roar of applause. . . . It seems like a living presence and, of course, it says, ‘Marc loved us.’ ”