Corinne Melchers: Reluctant Artist

Corinne Melchers, circa 1903

Our benefactress, Corinne Melchers, remains somewhat of an enigma today. Did you know she was a painter? While her surviving letters tell us about her daily activities, they fail to answer some of our more penetrating questions. How regularly did she practice her craft? She made almost no mention of it outside of her training years. And if that is the case, how do we explain the sophistication of her surviving works?

Leonard C. Mackall, Horse, undated, pencil on paper

Corinne Mackall came by her artistic gift honestly. Her father, Leonard Mackall, a businessman, dabbled in art, as evidenced by the charming Horse on view in the library at Belmont. His daughter was enrolled as a student at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute Practical School for Mechanic Arts when she met Gari Melchers on her way to study for a semester abroad in 1902. We possess a few of her sketchbooks from that period. Clearly, she demonstrated ability.

Corinne Mackall, Nude, circa 1902, charcoal on paper

Instead of returning home in 1903, Mackall married Gari Melchers and became an expatriate. There was, however, no further mention in the couple’s papers of a return to her studies. It would appear that she relinquished her dream of an art career, seemingly without hesitation. There is very little evidence that she made time even for leisurely drawing and painting– so much did her life revolve around her new domestic duties; learning Dutch, German and polishing up her French; traveling; and supporting her husband’s career. There was little time for anything else. Whether she relished or resented this, we many never know. But we do know that she didn’t sacrifice her talent altogether.

Corinne Melchers cannot be characterized as a particularly original artist, adhering, instead, to the conservative safety of the academic realism to which her husband also conformed. Few of her works survive, which complicates our understanding of how and when she evolved from an amateur to a proficient. Nevertheless, accomplished she was.

Corinne Melchers, Still Life with Coral Necklace, circa 1935, oil on canvas

Oddly, out of the blue, with no other exhibition experience before or to follow thereafter, she was invited to exhibit at the Corcoran’s biennial exhibitions of American paintings in the 1920s and 30s. That honor probably came about on account of Gari and Corinne Melchers’ relationship with the Corcoran’s director, C. P. Minnigerode, with whom they worked as trustees. Mrs. Melchers’ inclusion in the biennials was perhaps more a reflection of Minnigerode’s affection rather than as a validation of her as an important American painter in oil. Still, her submissions compared favorably, despite the fact that she was included among a group of painters, many of whom were well-known and possessed considerable credentials.

Corinne Melchers, Interior, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Mrs. George Cole Scott. © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Among her best examples I count The Interior, on loan to us by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The Interior was probably completed around 1915, shortly before the couple returned to the United States following the outbreak of war. Mrs. Melchers chose to paint a well-appointed interior, her drawing room in Weimar, Germany, the decoration of which she was mightily proud. The theme of intimate interior-scapes was popular. It allowed her to show off an ability to render a convincing illusion of space and atmospheric light and provided her with a variety of shapes, colors and textures with which to play.

Corinne Melchers, From the Dune Top, circa 1921, oil on canvas

Sometime after the war she painted From the Dune Top. Melchers rejected the age-old Dutch landscape device of dividing the composition into two-thirds sky to one third landscape in favor of focusing on the picturesque features of the village and countryside she had come to love. To reproduce the setting, she perched herself on a dune at Egmond aan Zee, a Dutch village on the North Sea and looked inland. It’s a very breezy impressionist view, and I like the effort she took to record the shadow cast by an overhead cloud upon the fields below.

When on holiday, Gari Melchers was eager to capture exotic settings, working in watercolor and gouache to take advantage of the quick-drying media. His wife had the same idea on at least one occasion( see below).

Corinne Melchers, View of Harbor at St. Lucia, 1928, watercolor

And then there is The Model, painted late in life, her clever “picture within a picture” portrait of her husband at work. It is a very good likeness, and

Corinne Melchers, The Model, circa 1929, oil on canvas

she also gives us a glimpse of the model posing for him, a favorite Dutch model in these last years, Miep Haalf, as well as Melchers’ canvas – both reflected in the mirror on a back wall. This visual trickery had to have been a deliberate play on the iconic painting Las Meninas (below) by the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velasquez.

Diego Velasquez, Las Meninas,1656, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Prado

To be so proficient at several themes is impressive . Given the skill indicated by these few pictures, Mrs. Melchers must have worked at her craft as her schedule allowed, ultimately saving only the best. What could she have accomplished had she given herself the chance?

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