SOME YEARS AGO, as part of a particularly happy assignment for the Washington Post, I interviewed Evelyn Nef about the Chagall in her Washington DC garden, the only Marc Chagall mosaic in a private home in the world.
She was 95 years old that summer and when I called for an appointment her secretary told me I could come only in the afternoon as “Mrs. Nef exercises in the mornings.”
Her workouts paid off, since after greeting me at the front door she did a little soft-shoe down the hallway saying, “Come into my back yard and see a marvel!”
We went out and plopped ourselves down on a bench in the shade and I listened to her tell the story of how this mosaic arrived from France by ship in 10 panels.
It was, she told me, a hostess gift.
Chagall was a good friend of her third husband, historian John Ulrich Nef, whom she married in 1964.
“Every summer, we went to France and saw the Chagalls,” she recalled. The people, not the paintings.
“We always went to the Hotel du Cap—they’d come to get away from the tourists in summer. In the morning, Marc would paint and my husband would write and Valentina and I would gossip. We became like a family.
“When he’d come to New York, where Matisse [son of painter Henri Matisse] was his dealer, he’d visit us in Washington. He loved the village of Georgetown and shopping at Woolworth for new pencils and colored crayons.”
When the artist proposed the mosaic for the garden, she was imagining a plaque of some sort, “a little 8-by-10-inch thing to hang,” she described with her hands. “I did not know I’d have to build a wall.”
Hereabouts is where the story for the Post ended, but my meeting with Mrs. Nef continued. There was a bit more to this story.
We talked, or she talked, for an hour and a half noting that John Nef began collecting Chagalls and Picassos and works by their contemporaries before they were famous.
“My husband bought 13 of Picasso’s circus etchings for $100,” she told me. $100.
“Are they at the National Gallery?” I asked, since she’d already mentioned that the mosaic would go to the gallery on her death.
“No dear,” she said. “They’re in the house.”
And up the sweet little old lady with the twinkly eyes and coral lipstick got up and led me back into the house and we stood at the base of the staircase where the Picassos were hopping up the wall and my head spun a cotton-candy mass that threatened to stop me breathing.
She pointed out another Picasso hanging on a wall next to the front door, actually hidden behind it when the door was opened. Following down the hallway and into the living room and dining room she pointed out more Chagalls—including seven lithographs he did for her over the years as birthday gifts—and more Picassos, all mingled with works by Whistler, Dufy, Matisse, Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister), a sketch by Le Corbusier (another house gift!), a Maillol sculpture on a pedestal in the living room beside the piano, and on and on and all hung as casually as the way you’d hang posters from MOMA on the walls of your first apartment, perhaps even more casually.
And you could stand so close, nose to nose. Close enough to blow the dust off a gilded frame. Close enough to trace a jut of Picassan nose with a fingertip . . .
Did I mention that Evelyn Nef’s name and address were in the phone book? That she never asked for identification, never double-checked my credentials?
Oh, the opportunities for perfect crimes I have passed up!
Nef’s treasures are now in the safe keeping of the National Gallery of Art, and that amazing Chagall mosaic was reassembled in the Sculpture Garden, just beyond the pavilion in a woody grove. A wonder for all to see.
LittleBird Stephanie writes about gardens, although they don’t usually contain Chagall mosaics. To read earlier columns, just search for Green Acre in the Search box up top.