In 1968, Marc Chagall visited the Washington, D.C., home of his friends and patrons Evelyn and John Nef, and decided that he would design a mosaic for their garden. There the work remained until it was given to the National Gallery of Art by Evelyn (1913–2009) as part of a larger bequest.
The mosaic's large scale—approximately 10 by 17 feet and 1,000 pounds—is belied by its ethereal figures and shimmering surface. The colorful, layered narratives are loosely drawn from Greek mythology and from the artist's personal experience. At center, Orpheus charms animals with his lute, accompanied by the Three Graces and the winged stallion Pegasus. In the bottom left corner of the mosaic, a group of people wait to cross a large body of water. According to Chagall, this alludes not only to the general immigration of Europeans to America, but also to his own experience: smuggled out of Nazi-occupied France by the International Rescue Committee during World War II, the Jewish artist found safe haven in New York. In the lower right corner, two lovers nestle in the greenery. Evelyn asked the artist if the figures depicted her and John; Chagall replied, "If you like."
Chagall turned to mosaics, stained glass, and tapestries in his later years, completing commissions for cathedrals and civic settings in Europe, Israel, and the United States. He designed the maquette for Orphée at his studio in France and hired Italian mosaicist Lino Melano, who created works for Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Georges Braque. Using Murano glass, Carrara marble, and naturally colored stones from Italy, Melano executed the ten-panel work and installed it on site in the Nefs' garden in Georgetown. In keeping with the Nefs' wishes, it reemerged on a specially built wall in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden in the summer of 2015.
lower right on 2011.60.104.10: MArC ChAgAll 69
Created by the artist for the garden, and installed 1971, at the residence of John U. Nef [1899-1988] and his wife, Evelyn Stefansson Nef [1913-2009], Washington, D.C.; bequest 2009 to the NGA.