Elegy for a Painter

Eighty-eight years ago today Gari Melchers slipped the bonds of earth. In the wake of his unexpected death, a great outpouring of tributes testified to a life well lived. It was evident that his passing was felt as a distinctive loss to American art.

The New York Herald-Tribune eulogized that “he was a born artist, and he exercised his remarkable powers with gusto and authority from the beginning to the end of a long career. . . . His paintings confirm the assertion that Melchers was indeed one of the strong pillars of the American school.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune opined that “the painting of Gari Melchers is a thorough answer to the blatant pretense of the great mass of modernism – free from all dogmas and fads, and was an imitator of none.”

But it was ” his charm of personality,” says the New York Times, “which won him his distinctive place in the community. Natural kindliness, a sure instinct for finding out the best in other men, personal modesty and readiness to recognize the good work of others, even when it did not conform with his own artistic standards, made him the close and valued friend of all his fellow craftsmen.” His generous aid to struggling artists through the Artists Fellowship is remembered to this day with the annual awarding of the Gari Melchers Prize.

Recently I came across a poem penned by a noted Virginia poet and literary critic, Florence Dickinson Stearns, a local who resided at 1309 Washington Avenue from 1909 until 1927. The verse was composed and dedicated to Gari Melchers upon hearing the news of his death on November 30, 1932. Writing to Mrs. Melchers from her home in New York City, she confessed that she could not be certain she remembered roses at Belmont’s backdoor, but felt that the painter “somehow” still inhabited the place. I publish it again here in honor of a great American painter who discovered that the purest form of beauty lies in the prosaic.

His simple doorway looks toward the falls,-

Smooth silver, slipping to a beaded cloud.

Between these wooded banks white thunder calls

And goes unheeded by the casual crowd,

Over his weathered walls, a tide of roses

Creeps to the harbor of a friendly pane

Surrendering to beauty as a blind uncloses

To take the bars of morning back again.

Here life and light revealed their circumstance.

Here in his studio, fashioned to a whim,

The common field gained a significance

Showing the heart of nature beat for him.

Clear hour for those whose vision sees him still

Deathless . . . triumphant . . on his dreaming hill.

-Florence Dickinson Stearns


  1. Kirk Darrough says

    Joanna, thank you for a wonderful tribute to a wonderful person. I so wish that I had known him. Walking the
    grounds or through the halls of the house, I sometimes expect he’s just around the corner or just up the walk.
    Whenever guests ask me about Gari and Corinne – as people, not artists, I’ve always replied that I have never
    read or heard anything that wasn’t complimentary about either of them. Your point that Gari was so well
    regarded as a truly generous and nice person by his neighbors, friends, and fellow artists rings so true.
    May he always be remembered as such.

    Thanks for all you do

    Kirk Darrough

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