Marc Chagall (French-Russian, 1887-1985) is well known for his unique, free-floating, gravity-defying, sometimes upside down, Expressionist-style drawings of religious, mythological and mundane subjects. They include: angels, menorahs, Old Testament prophets, rabbis, couples, animals, flowers, Christ, etc. All expressed in paintings, prints and mosaics, completing commissions for the latter for cathedrals, civic settings and private parties, in Europe, Israel and the United States.
In 1968, Chagall visited the Georgetown home of his friends and patrons Evelyn and John Nef, and decided that he would design a mosaic for the Nef’s garden — the artist called the artwork “Orphee (Orpheus).”
The mosaic’s large scale — approximately 10 feet by 17 feet and 1,000 pounds — is populated by its ethereal figures and mystical tone, which also distinguished so much of Chagall’s work in other media. Swooping arabesques and three concentric suns create an undulating rhythm throughout the composition.
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 beneath the blazing sun, a group of people wait to cross a large body of water.
According to Chagall, this scene not only alluded to the immigrants and refugees who crossed the ocean to reach America, but also references his own past. 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 whether the figures depicted her and her husband. Chagall replied, “If you like.”
Chagall designed the maquette for the mosaic at his studio in France and hired Italian mosaicist Lino Melano — who created mosaics for Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger and Georges Braque among other luminaries. The mural remained in the Nef’s garden until it was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art in the summer of 2015.
Visit bit.ly/0102MarcChagall to view a 4:31-minute National Gallery of Art video on the exhibition “From Private Setting to Public Garden.”