When the National Gallery of Art opened the exhibition Degas at the Races in 1998, Peter Stroh, Gari Melchers’ great nephew, got to wondering if his uncle’s Degas painting would be included in the display. He wrote me to inquire about what I might know.
Gari and Corinne Melchers once owned a Degas? Edgar Degas? The iconic French artist (1834-1917) who was one of the most original proponents of early modern painting? This was a revelation. Gari Melchers was hesitant to pass judgment on his contemporaries, but he openly praised Degas, considered him a great master in fact, and was an admirer and personal acquaintance of Degas’ one-time protégé, Mary Cassatt. The Melcherses were modest collectors, but if they had owned a Degas, which I imagined was a minor work, it was no longer in the collection at Belmont.
Stroh vividly recalled that when he visited Belmont in his youth, an imposing Degas painting of a horse race was prominently displayed over a mantel in the parlor. As Mr. Stroh’s memory was routinely reliable, I was indisposed to question it, but we had a dozen photographs documenting the parlor with nary a Degas to be spotted. I questioned a niece of Gari Melchers who recalled that a large panel by Constant Troyon (French, 1810-1895), one of his classic paintings of a cow in a luminous landscape, hung on the back wall of the parlor, but she didn’t remember the Degas. Life-long horse enthusiasts, Peter Stroh and his brother Gari Melchers Stroh, remained unshaken in their conviction that their uncle owned a Degas painting of a horse race.
I went to the Degas exhibition ahead of Mr. Stroh, who would be travelling from Detroit, to see what I could see about a Melchers connection. The show stopper was a painting,
now owned by the National Gallery of Art, entitled Scene from the Steeplechase, The Fallen Jockey, the most memorable example from a series of exploratory steeplechase paintings Degas produced early in his career.
Painted in 1866 for exhibition at the Paris Salon, the subject was novel and ambitious in scale, set in the midst of a dangerous cross-country obstacle race. Degas meant to cause a sensation with this dramatic and spectral image of a lifeless jockey thrown from his horse and sprawled in the path of oncoming horses.
Imagine my astonishment when in reading the paintings’ lengthy wall label I discovered in the remarks: “Purchased June 1960 by Mr. Paul Mellon from Lawton Mackall.” Mackall was Mrs. Melchers’ younger brother. It was conceivable that he had inherited the painting from his sister.
I could imagine one of the dozens of preliminary charcoal sketches in this show being the Melchers in question, but not the celebrated Fallen Jockey – at six by five feet no less! I couldn’t imagine a painting of that size having hung over the mantel in the parlor. It would have been too overpowering in scale. I could see, on the other hand, how it might have fit perfectly on the back wall, a long, uninterrupted expanse that no photographer had ever bothered to document. Mr. Stroh thought that was possible, that his memory mistakenly fixed the painting over one of the room’s two focal points-the black marble mantels.
In his letter to me, Stroh had wondered if we would be able to spot the painting in the show or exhibition catalog. I should say so! Not only did the magnificent Scene from the Steeplechase hold a place of honor in the galleries of the exhibition, but a detail of the painting also graced the cover of the catalog. No, two impressionable youths like the Strohs were not likely to forget such an apparition as this jockey about to be trampled.
Back at Belmont I searched our archives and found a single reference in Mrs. Melchers’ diary of January 27, 1921- “Buy the Degas at Plaza [Hotel, New York] sale, [American Art Galleries] $3,500.” I combed Mrs. Melchers’ will (she outlived Gari by 23 years). The Degas was not individually listed. There were several family portraits that were individually listed as bequests to her brother Lawton. No later codicils referenced the painting. I determined that Mackall, as her residuary legatee, either was gifted the painting outright by his sister before her death or he inherited the painting as part of the remainder of the estate- that is, what was not part of the bequest to the Commonwealth (the House, Studio and contents and 50 selected works by Gari Melchers) – upon her death in 1955.
What captivated Melchers in this work by Degas? Except for a shared interest in subjects drawn from modern life – and Melchers did dabble with the theme of jockeys – his works have little affinity with Degas’ technique and his strangely angled and voyeuristic viewpoints. Still, I couldn’t help being reminded of Melchers’ Moss and Sand, circa 1890, in the Belmont collection.
Scene from the Steeplechase was the best acquisition Melchers ever made. It was a bargain then and still would be, with a $3,500 price tag in 1923 converting to $46,361 today. If it came to the market today, it would easily fetch in the tens of millions.