As an expatriate in Holland, Germany, and Paris and back in the United States, every time Gari Melchers pulled up stakes he was compelled to find a new studio to work in. First considerations were always given to light —and not just any light—northern light is the preferred choice of artists. Why? Not only does northern light not change direction throughout the day, eliminating shadows, but it provides a constant and consistent light and cool value. Paul Cezanne’s famous atelier in Aix-en-Provence, France, got it right.
New York City
When not living abroad, New York City became Melchers’ commercial base. Here he made the rounds, painted, and was active in various social and cultural organizations. The city and overall artistic community were rapidly growing at the end of the nineteenth century and desirable studio space with large rooms and northern light was increasingly hard to find.
Completed in 1901, Bryant Park Studios was one of the city’s earliest buildings designed specifically to house artist studios. The structure was commissioned by prominent painter Abraham A. Anderson who, like Melchers, had spent time in Paris as an art student. Upon his return to the states, Anderson too had difficulty finding adequate artist working spaces. In his autobiography, Anderson writes, “Thinking other artists returning to America would be in the same situation, I decided to erect a studio building.”
Funded by his wife’s inherited Borden Dairy Company fortune, Anderson worked with architect Charles A. Rich to fulfill his dream. The handsome Beaux-Arts style building features twenty-four double-height, northern facing windows. Because Bryant Park is located directly across the street, it cleverly guaranteed unobstructed light. This building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1988.
Gari Melchers first rented studio space at Bryant Park Studios during extended stays in New York City between 1906-08. He subsequently occupied Studio 51 from 1916 until his death in 1932. Fun fact: in 1921, he paid $3,960 in annual rent. Melchers regularly took the night train while traveling back and forth between Virginia and the Big Apple. At Bryant Park Studios, Melchers was in good company. Illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, painter/designer Florine Stettheimer and photographer Edward Steichen all rented space during Melchers’ tenure.
Melchers wrote to Baltimoreon art patron Alice Warder Garrett from his Bryant Park Studio emphasizing the need to view her portrait in summer’s natural light.
“You won’t be angry and must forgive me if I ask you to make one little change in the schedule. Come to my studio before dinner and not after. My artificial light is rotten and I insist you and John and your sister and Mr. Ellis see our picture by daylight. Just compromise and set your dinner hour for 7:30 instead of eight o-clock and meet in my studio before going to the Coffee House. Please do.”
The White House
Yes, even at The White House the artist chased light. In 1908, Charles Lang Freer commissioned Melchers to paint President Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait. While in Washington, D.C. painting the president, he often wrote to his wife, Corinne, about the important goings on. In one such letter he explains his work’s early stages.
After lunch, the President said that presently he would show me his riding outfit so that we might decide any details of his costume. In the meantime Mrs. Roosevelt took me around upstairs and downstairs to find a suitable studio and we decided on the small dining room which has a north light.
To learn more about this momentous occasion, I invite you to read my blog post, Painting a President.
Back at Belmont, his Virginia country retreat, Melchers made light-infused plans for both his home and future studio. One of the first improvements Gari and Corinne made to their newly acquired Georgian home was to add a five-sided sun porch with multiple arched windows on the south side. The green-shuttered windows above offered guests exclusive bird’s eye garden views.
After occupying several temporary studio spaces in the village of Falmouth, Melchers engaged the services of friend and architect John Donaldson to design his pièce de ré·sis·tance on-site studio. The spacious interior was well suited for his mural work and an oversized northern window provided the artist with his coveted light.
After the main stone studio building was completed in 1924, additional gallery spaces were added. The use of sky lights permeated these exhibition areas with abundant natural light.
Finally, perhaps it is fitting that Gari Melcher’s first painting accepted by the Paris Salon, The Letter, and the last painting he completed, The Lace Cap, both feature Dutch women back lit by a window, thus bringing his fascination with light full circle.
~ Michelle Crow-Dolby, Education and Communications Manager, Gari Melchers Home & Studio