When curator Andrew Robison came to the National Gallery in the mid-1970s, he wanted to find out who in town collected prints, drawings, and watercolors and was interested in the museum. The Nefs were among those at the top of the list, and he sought them out. Robison, senior curator of prints and drawings, eventually became friends with Evelyn as well as a regular at her parties—the New Year’s Eve affairs at her house in Georgetown where dinner wasn’t served until after midnight, the birthday parties for Evelyn at her contemporary home in the Berkshires where cellist Yo-Yo Ma once played.
Evelyn’s soirees reminded Rusty Powell of what the 19th-century salons must have been like in Europe. “She would always have people of different walks of life,” the museum director says, “and she’d stir this social soup in a way that was very interesting and great fun.”
Nef in her later years was no less of a force. At 60, armed with only a high-school diploma, she trained to be a psychotherapist. On her 80th birthday, intent on achieving a flat stomach, she hired a personal trainer and started pumping iron; eventually she was doing more than 300 sit-ups.
Robison says he admired Evelyn’s combination of femininity, intellect, and joie de vivre: “She had this fantastic feminist life where she went through three husbands and one great lover, adapted herself to each of them, always reinvented herself, and then reinvented herself for the fifth time after her last husband died.”
Following John’s death, Evelyn gave up her psychotherapy practice and taught herself everything she needed to know about finance and philanthropy. “My first move was to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, which I read religiously, at first without much understanding,” she wrote. “But in time I accumulated enough knowledge to feel capable of making informed and sensible decisions.”
John had wanted his art collection to go to the National Gallery, and Evelyn liked the idea. She had nieces and nephews, though no children, but “she really thought that the art belonged in a museum,” says Robison.
Aside from supporting the local symphony and opera, Evelyn gave money every year to the National Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Robison invited her to get more involved, suggesting she put her money toward a specific work that the museum wanted to purchase instead of blindly writing a check.
So every December, Evelyn made a donation. Then Robison would invite her to lunch and to the print room, where he would show her two or three works the museum could buy with her money, ask her to help choose, and give her a mini-seminar. The routine pleased them both: “She’d say, ‘When are we going to have another session?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, you have to give some money,’ ” Robison says with a smile.
For the museum’s 50th anniversary in 1991, Robison had his eye on two pieces in Nef’s collection. “I screwed up my courage, and I asked her to think about giving her two most important works: a Picasso gouache and an early Chagall gouache.” She was amenable, Robison says, but didn’t want to live without the cherished works on her walls, especially the Chagall.
The curator made a facsimile of it for Evelyn, putting the work in the same frame with the same mat so she could hang it in her home while the original went to the museum.
She was thrilled. And Robison eventually started making facsimiles for her of works the museum bought with her money. The likenesses, eventually made through digital photography, were good—so good, says Robison, that the auction house that assessed her collection after she died assigned very high values to some of the copies. “It didn’t recognize that they were facsimiles,” he says.
The National Gallery’s curators and conservators had to develop several scenarios for taking the mosaic down from Nef’s garden. “We had very little to go on because we didn’t know how it had been installed,” says senior conservator Shelley Sturman.
Had it been completely cemented into the wall, dismantling it would have been trickier—and riskier to the artwork—than it was.
After building two-level scaffolding with a roof and removing bricks from all around the perimeter of the mosaic, the workers discovered the best of all possible outcomes: An air space had been left between the mosaic and the wall.
The museum crew installed steel beams to support the wall and then decided to take the mosaic down much as it had been put up: working one panel at a time and removing all the tesserae—the pieces of stone and glass—around the border of each panel so the rusted and corroded iron clamps holding the ten segments together could be removed.
They took scale photos of all the borders and seams and then removed the tesserae from these areas one by one, repositioning the stones with flour paste on the photos so they’d know exactly where each stone went when they were ready to assemble the mosaic again.
Then, one by one, each of the ten panels was removed, covered with three layers of a protective cotton cloth on the front surface, placed in foam-insulated crates, and shipped to the museum’s off-site production facility.
There, the backs of the mosaic panels are being worked on—all of the iron is being removed and replaced with stainless-steel grids.
After each panel is refitted with new metalwork, it will be shipped to the object-conservation lab at the museum, where the cotton layers will be removed and the front side of the mosaic cleaned. Soon the National Gallery staff will be faced with the question of how to install the Chagall in its sculpture garden. “We might decide that we want to rebuild it exactly the way they did in 1970,” says conservator Sturman. “It worked beautifully then. It stood the test of time.”
Meanwhile, the tall brick wall on N Street has been restored, and John’s ashes, once buried at its base, have been moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, where they’re interred alongside Evelyn and her second husband, Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Soon after Evelyn’s death, curator Andrew Robison spent a couple of days at her Georgetown home going through every book that lined the living-room shelves. He found dozens that had been personally dedicated, including many with a whimsical crayon drawing on the title page and words of obvious affection: “Pour les amis Nef, Marc Chagall.”
This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.