The Painting That Keeps On Giving

The creation of a work of art, just as with music or poetry, begins with the germ of an idea or a sudden inspiration, suggested by, say, the flash of a girl’s smile or the wind whispering in the trees. The painter is quick to express his first responses on paper before the muse has escaped him.

Many iterations can follow as the artist fleshes out his first vision. He might sketch out a few crude compositional variations, followed by the design blocked out in color. The painter might dial in on details, sketching in a summarized fashion or bringing a single element to a higher finish in what is called a study. Often these early formulations go no further, and just as often, preliminary work can evolve into one or more full-fledged easel paintings. So, it was with Gari Melchers’ In Holland.

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In Holland, 1887-1897, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

In this painting, Melchers has portrayed two Dutch girls descending the steep slope of a sand dune, one pausing to wait for the other. Their figures dominate the canvas. One, appearing in surprisingly fancy dress, carries a yoke with milk pails, an iconic symbol of “Dutchness” to the eyes of foreigners. The other, who is more practically attired in work clothes, carries a rake and basket used for gathering ruigte, withered grasses for composting. Her proximity to us pointedly reveals the physical attributes of a manual laborer. At the top of the slope is visible a windmill and the familiar red-tile rooftops of Egmond aan Zee, Holland, a fishing village on the North Sea where the artist lived and worked.

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In Holland, original state, 1887

When the monumental In Holland, at 109  x 78 inches, appeared in the 1887 international Salon of Paris, criticism was mixed. Some faulted Melchers for the painting’s  lack of the picturesque and for his almost life-size images of “ugly” girls. Critics felt the subject of two girls loping across a dune didn’t warrant the enormous scale given to the subject. The picture’s lackluster reception must have been a great disappointment for the artist, as he had hoped to reprise his success of the previous year when he submitted his painting The Sermon (Smithsonian Museum of American Art).

Spurred by the lack of praise for In Holland, Melchers returned to paint it at least two more times, making several alterations, the most notable being the addition of a windmill and other farm structures at the top of the picture, as well as an overall heightening of color,  producing the picture we now know as In Holland. The irony is that in trying to provide more visual interest, Melchers gave in to the temptation to construct a pastiche of Dutch life. Still, he must have preferred the simplicity of the first version, because he reprised it again in an etching years  later, as well as in a related series of paintings.

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In Holland, etching on paper, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Melchers exhibited a painting entitled In the Dunes at Durand-Ruel Galleries in Paris in 1891.  Was this In Holland under another name? We can’t be sure, because we don’t know what it looked like, but it could be one and the same with yet another painting, this one from a private collection that surfaced in a 2019 auction in Hamburg, Germany.

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In the Dunes, circa 1887, Sue C. Lang Family Trust

Also entitled In the Dunes, this latest variation is a loosely finished, smaller version of the original In Holland. Aspects still preserved from the original In Holland are the earthier tones and the crescent moon that signals the close of the girls’ work day. Because Melchers’  best examples in the dune series exhibit a penchant for intensity of color, atmospheric light and precise draftsmanship, it becomes all the clearer that the roughly worked In the Dunes, at 33 x 24 inches, probably started life as a small-scale study for In Holland. This newly discovered painting can be viewed at Gari Melchers Home and Studio, thanks to a generous loan by the Sue C. Lang Family Trust. It will share the spotlight with In Holland and Moss and Sand.

What drew Melchers to this subject, more than anything else was, as he saw it, the beauty of his sturdy, wholesome neighbors. In chronicling them, he eschewed conventional beauty in favor of truth of character.  Having lived among them for at least a year, his sympathetic portrayal was not so much sentimentalizing as it was heroicizing. The life of the working class in North Holland was perennially hard, if not cruel at times. In keeping with late 19th century ideology, Melchers aimed to pay homage to the virtues of agrarian life and emphasize the peasants’ rootedness to the land, investing them with a kind of goodness, even godliness.

The survival of several sketches in our archives indicates that Melchers continued to develop his idea of rustic figures meeting on the dunes. In one series of preliminaries, he substitutes the grass gatherer with a young fisherman who glances back at a single young woman, now unencumbered by the yoke and pails.

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Three Sketches, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

I suspect Melchers produced a full-blown work from these, since he put such effort into numerous variants, but if there is a final work or works, it is lost to me and probably hiding in someone’s parlor or a school library.

In Holland also helped birth further variants like the two lovers in Vespers, from a private collection.

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Vespers, no date, private collection

Other sketches demonstrate that Melchers experimented with reducing the number of farm figures to a single woman in various poses, lugging a basket, searching the horizon for a loved one at sea or resting in the sea holly (eryngium).

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Sketches, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

These sketches and studies gave rise to rise to a dozen more pictures, but on a more marketable scale than In Holland, such as Audrey, The Shepherd Lass and Moss and Sand, figures similarly set against sharply-tilted dunescapes. Is there any real harm from cribbing from oneself? Commercially, it was a boon for Melchers. And for us? Well, of course, it gives us a far richer body of work to study and admire.

Audrey

 Audrey, The Shepherd Lass, Wheaton College

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Moss and Sand, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Comments

  1. Perry Hurt says

    Thanks for the lovely article. Single artworks can say so much, but to see a body of work that is so interrelated certainly gives much more insight to the mind of the artist.

  2. Enjoyed the story behind the paintings and to see how the artist (Melchers) paints a final or more popular version after he has painted other versions of the same subject — not that one is better than the other but can be more or less appealing in different ways to different individuals.

  3. Susan Valentine says

    Wow, who knew you were such an amazing writer, Joanna! I love that you use unusual words such as “eschewed, germ of an idea, pastiche, heroicizing, dunescape” ! During the Renasissance in French Literature, there was a group of poets who called themselves the Pleaide. They wrote a work called “Defense and Ilustration of the French Language” in which they encouraged poets to write in French, not Latin, and to use a variety of words, such as words from professions (metiers), regional words, technical and industrial words, words to enrich the language of poetry. Your descriptions are so delightful. I especially appreciate your work during this time of what seems like cultural aridity and technological overload. Of course, the comparisons of the paintings are informative and insightful as well. Bravo,Joanna!

  4. Linda Burgess says

    I especially love the Vespers and the Shepherd Girl pictures. The Vespers is undeniable sweet and the Shepherd girl seems to be trying to double task. Can a shepherd do that?

  5. Venkatarao Rao says

    Love the story behind the painting(s). Story of evolution of the painting is interesting, It certainly keeps on giving!

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