Gari Melchers’ Use of Photography

Gari Melchers was a painter in oil, watercolor and pastel. While some explored the possibilities of photography as an art form, the technology held little attraction for him other than how it might save him time and expense.

Preliminary photographic records or aides-memoires (memory aids), in concert with sketches and studies, can help an artist document and compose the various elements under pictorial consideration. The use of photographic aids was a common practice accepted as legitimate in Melchers’ day.

There are plenty of good reasons for a painter to have a camera on hand. When painting en plein aire or out-of-doors, a camera can still the motion of a wave, for example, or the formation of a bank of clouds. Weather can be a capricious friend or foe. A photographic record of an outdoor setting is a safeguard in the event that wind, rain or snow sends the painter running for shelter. A change in lighting can alter the entire mood of a scene, indoors or out, but a carefully-timed photograph can preserve nuances of transitory light and shadow.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Painting people poses its special challenges. When executing self-portraits, both photographs and mirrors are most often regarded as essential. Naturally, for portraits produced posthumously, artists have to rely on photographs.  Painting from life can be a trying exercise for both painter and model, especially when babies, children and subjects unused to posing for prolonged periods are involved. Capturing a good photographic record in which the desired composition and lighting is reproduced can mean an early dismissal for both artist and subject.

Cyanotype, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Late nineteenth-century artists often travelled to international destinations looking for primitive or “old world” types in picturesque costume.  But local rustics were often bashful or suspicious of artists’ objectives and were hesitant to pose, even for pay. In that case the artist could consider himself lucky to get a quick snapshot.

The building of multi-figural compositions and complicated settings is another challenge, requiring the cooperation of multiple models and expenses related to the cost of their fees and additional props and venues. But a photograph can eliminate long hours in the studio and reduce of the cost of models while maintaining a constancy of pose and details of accessory.

Photographic images had an impact on late nineteenth-century painting in matters of style as well. Early modern painters and impressionists were after images that conveyed the illusion of light, atmospheric effects and the constant flux of their surroundings, deliberately mimicking what many considered as the shortcomings of photography –cropping, blurring, and imperfections of exposure –all common to the technical process.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Hungarian painter Fritz Strobentz painted an almost literal copy of his former schoolmate, Gari Melchers, by relying on a photograph of him at work before an easel. Of course, artists are free to make alterations when transposing their photographic images to canvas. Slavishly copying photos was frowned upon by late nineteenth-century progressives. A photograph was considered a guide, a convenience at best, the belief being that the photo was never as good as what lived in the artist’s imagination.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Fritz Strobentz, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Photographic shortcuts had no place in a late nineteenth-century academic curriculum in which one’s estimate was based upon innate talent. Thus, as a classically-trained painter, Gari Melchers’ natural powers of observation were well developed and precise, but in order to achieve his goals, photographic aids were a tool upon which he would occasionally rely.  We don’t know if he wielded his own camera in every instance or enlisted the help of another photographer.

Melchers or someone else was responsible for photographing a few of his early Dutch models. Several images are cyanotypes, a photographic process no longer in common use today. A cyanotype is a blue mono-tonal reproduction of a photographic negative, in other words, one and the same as a blueprint. Cyanotypes were attractive to artists because they were very inexpensive, and the artist could manipulate the medium that was suspended on the photographic paper to produce pictorial effects.

The photographer whose work appears below carefully positioned the model in three-quarter profile and employed sensitive lighting effects to emphasize her purity and innocence, which Melchers next replicated in paint. Hers is a face that burns on the memory. She is the emotive focal point of The Choirmaster and a sentimental highlight in Vespers.

Cyanotype, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
The Choirmaster, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Vespers, Detroit Institute of Arts

Another favorite Dutch model was Anna Dekker, who posed multiple times in and out-of-doors, and the photos that document those sessions resulted in several iterations of Anna in the role of  Little Red Riding Hood, as a shepherdess in The Dead Rabbit and Waiting, and as at least one of the models who posed for Moss and Sand.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Little Red Riding Hood, private collection

By the time of his marriage in 1903, Gari Melchers was almost certainly the man behind the lens, so appealing were the everyday domestic activities he observed in his wife and her circle. It looks like he would even piece together various compositional elements based on his photographic records to create paintings like Woman Reading by a Window and Crimson Rambler.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
The Crimson Rambler, private collection
Woman Reading by a Window, private collection

Photographic aids enabled Melchers to experiment with two different compositions for the beautiful China Closet. In both shots an elegantly attired mistress with her back to us stands at a cabinet loaded with sparkling decorative china. She selects pieces for her tea table, arranging them on a tray held out to receive them by a house maid in a crisply-starched petticoat and apron, all in white in one of the photos and in a black dress and white apron in the other. For the painted version Melchers opted for the vertical layout with the house maid in black and white in order that her pretty profile and figurestand out from the dark shadows of the pantry. Melchers enlivened the scene by replicating the play of reflective light on the crockery with flickering strokes of bright color.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
The China Closet, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

While on holiday, when Melchers had no use of a studio home base, he found that photography and quick-drying media like watercolor and gouache were particularly handy in getting down the essential nature of what attracted him, as in On the Road to Ronda, an image of a peasant he encountered while enjoying a driving tour of Spain. The native inhabitants, intense sunlight and color palette of the West Indies also fired his imagination. He took rolls and rolls of film to assist him once he returned to his studio to record his memory of the docks in Barbados.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
On the Road to Ronda, Gari Melchers Home and Studio


Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Phtograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Barbados Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Gari Melchers was fascinated with small town life and carried his camera out to the friendly Fredericksburg Virginia fairgrounds to record the community hanging on fences around the horse track to observe races and a parade of floats. He was careful to document the judges’ stand and the various attitude of the onlookers, jockeys and their mounts to produce The Race, Country Fair.

Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
Photograph, Gari Melchers Home and Studio
The Race, Country Fair, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Even though painters were quick to utilize photography as an ancillary medium within a short time of its introduction as a new technology, it wasn’t until Melchers’ day that artists openly conceded their use of it. From a post-modern point of view, it’s hardly cheating, especially when you consider our wildly unlimited approaches to artistic expression, even our digital dependence on online stock imagery! Besides, you have to appreciate these beautiful old images for their own merit and how they also give us insight into the workings of Gari Melchers’ artistic mind.


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