Visual Moment // Chagall’s Orphée

August, 08 2014
Orphée by Marc Chagall

A Once Private Mosaic
Makes A Public Debut

by Diane M. Bolz


It was a late afternoon in early November 1971. The setting was a private walled garden in Washington, D.C.’s tree-lined Georgetown neighborhood. In attendance, among others, were the French Ambassador Charles Lucet, art collectors and patrons John and Evelyn Nef (owners of the garden) and the acclaimed artist Marc Chagall. The group had gathered to celebrate the installation of a shimmering 17-foot-long stone and glass mosaic designed by Chagall and presented as a gift to his friends the Nefs.  Speeches were made and as the garden wall was illuminated, wrote Evelyn Nef in her autobiography, “the dazzling display appeared to a hushed silence followed by a roar of applause.”

Four years earlier, Chagall and his wife, Vava, had spent some time at the Nefs’ home. “Marc loved the small-town feeling of Georgetown,” Evelyn wrote. “He liked being able to greet our neighbors and walking to Woolworths to buy postcards and an art-supply store to buy more brushes.” One day he told her that he wanted to “do something for the house,”  but later, he said, “No, the house is perfect; I’ll make a mosaic for the garden.”

Evelyn visualized a smallish piece, maybe 8 by 10 inches, but that was not to be. When the Nefs  and the Chagalls met in France the next summer, Vava told them that Marc had finished the maquette for their mosaic. For the first time since we had known him, Evelyn related, “Marc invited us into his atelier, the inner sanctum that few persons were privileged to see. On the wall, covered with brown paper was a twenty-by thirty-inch something that I rightly guessed was the maquette.”  That “something” turned out to be a “wonderfully colored gouache painting” picturing images from Greek mythology (Orpheus and his lute, the Three Graces, the winged horse Pegasus), a couple embracing , an angel, fish, birds, buildings and a vibrant sun. On the lower half of the painting was a group of immigrants and refugees poised to cross a wide blue ocean, a theme reflecting Chagall’s own experience as a refugee in the United States during World War II.  Color animated the painting, giving the impression of movement to the composition—a blend of the real and the fantastic typical of the artist’s unique personal vision.
Chagall enlisted the renowned Italian mosaicist Lino Melano to enlarge and translate the design into a mosaic composed of thousands of small hand-cut pieces, or tesserae, fashioned of Murano glass, Carrara marble and natural colored stones from Italy. It took nine months for Melano and his assistant to produce the ten individual, concrete-backed panels, each measuring approximately 5 by 3-1/2 feet, that would make up the 10-foot-tall, 17-foot-wide mosaic. The panels were packed in crates and shipped to Washington’s Dulles Airport. Melano followed to supervise the installation of the mosaic on the 30-foot brick wall that the Nefs had specially built to accommodate the work. Melano brought with him a bucket of tesserae so that he could craft a border and patch over the joints to create a seamless-looking, continuous mural. The work was one of the first large-scale outdoor Chagall mosaics to be installed in this country and the only one of its kind in a private house or garden in North America. Titled “Orphee,” it adorned the Nefs’ garden for nearly four decades.

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A film documenting the creation of Chagall’s “Four Seasons” mosaic in Chicago, dedicated in 1974, provides some clues as to how Chagall and Melano might have worked together on the Nef mosaic.  The film reveals a true collaboration. Melano would create a section of mosaic and then Chagall would take his paintbrush and point to “more red here,”  “less color there,” etc.  Melano would then disassemble the area in question and redo it according to Chagall’s critique.

John Nef died in 1988 and when Evelyn passed away in 2009, she bequeathed the mosaic, along with some 100 works from the couple’s 19th– and 20th-century collection of prints, drawings and illustrated books to Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

In the spring of 2010, a team of conservators, curators, art handlers, designers, mosaicists, carpenters, engineers, architects, masons and support staff from the Gallery spent five weeks extracting the mosaic from the garden wall.  In order to separate the mosaic into its individual panels, conservators had to meticulously remove the tesserae along each seam and around the border (more than 100 linear feet of mosaic) before adhering them to full-scale photographs to produce a record of how each piece was positioned. The pieces were not flat or uniformly shaped; each was chipped and chiseled to a specific form and oriented in a way to achieve a particular effect.  A precise record would be key to an accurate reconstruction. Then, over a period of three years and with the expertise of an Italian mosaic specialist, conservators cleaned the tesserae, removed the deteriorated mortar setting, replaced the rusted iron support structure and clips with stainless steel, re-adhered loose tesserae and made some replacements for missing ones out of resin to distinguish them from the originals. “From start to finish, says head of object conservation Shelley Sturman, who spearheaded the project, “the conservation and installation were part of an intricate, carefully choreographed ballet.”

Gallery designers and masons created a grey stucco wall in the museum’s Sculpture Garden to hold the mosaic and the team collaborated to devise a special stainless steel system to attach the panels to the wall.  Once all ten panels were installed, conservators painstakingly reconstructed the mosaic along the seams and around the border, replacing each tessera in its original location and orientation.


Shelley Sturman (Senior Conservator & Head of Department, National Gallery of Art) working on the de-installation from the Nef’s garden

The Nef’s house was on the corner of 28th and N Streets, and passersby, alerted by mentions in the newspaper, word of mouth or local tourist information, often peeked over the garden wall to catch a glimpse the mosaic. An orthodox synagogue was on the corner diagonally across from the house, and conservator Shelley Sturman was told that during the Jewish High Holy Days the Nefs left their garden gate open so that worshipers could view the mosaic.

Now “Orphee” is on year-round view, securely ensconced in the secluded northwest corner of the Gallery’s Sculpture Garden under a canopy of trees that evokes the intimacy of the Nefs’ private garden. “The weather, the time of day, and the kind of light all produce changes in its appearance,” wrote Evelyn Nef. “When it rains, the wet tesserae are a different, stronger color….It seems like a living presence.”

Indeed.  As one observes the subtle play of light and shadow on the mosaic’s intricate surface, the lively scene appears to flicker and transform, drawing one’s focus to different areas of Chagall’s evocative vision—to the Pegasus, to the couple under the tree, and then, as if on cue, a shaft of light filters through the trees and illuminates the sun.

The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is located on the National Mall and Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th streets and is open Monday – Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm, and Sunday, 11 am – 6 pm. It is closed December 25 and January 1.

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