After studying Gari Melchers for nearly forty years it’s inevitable that people expect the curator of the collection to have a favorite. Impossible. That’s like asking me to pick a favorite chocolate from a 20- pound box of Whitmans. Really? Just one? Recently, I decided to turn the tables on my enquirers and asked which were their favorites!
In surveying our staff I found that, not surprisingly, an individual’s response to art is quite subjective and the reasons often impenetrable. Sometimes a responsive chord is struck in a very physical or emotional way, regardless of the beauty or skill inherent in a painting. Several staff members describe being drawn into a picture because of personal associations, such as a tug of nostalgia or a feeling of deja vu that gives the painting greater meaning. One of the staff members I canvassed favors the painting In Old Virginia because the old cabin reminded her of the Texas farmhouse that was sold out of her family.
She also loves The Hunters because she comes from a hunting family and can identify with both the topic and with the evocative line Mrs. Melchers penned to her mother, “Everybody in the neighborhood is hunting and guns are heard in every direction. We have been enjoying partridges, wild ducks and rabbits, . . . ”
Some report being attracted primarily to chromatic effects in brightly festooned pictures like The Crimson Rambler or the high-key palette of Interior of a Studio, Holland. One of our docent staff was overcome with emotion the first time she encountered the colorful mapping of sunlight in the latter image. That studio space was, for her, as intimate and immediate as she could know in real life.
Others are intrigued by what the artist has left unsaid! That studio interior is empty and the entrance door hangs open, lending the image a decidedly anticipatory air. It begs the question, “Who’s departed or who’s about to enter?” Similarly, one of our docents gushes over Doorway 203 because
she admires the simple artistry of Melchers’ shorthand brushstrokes and finds herself always asking, “Who lives here?” and “What is the world like behind that door?”
Many of those I queried declare they are drawn most to images that reproduce local scenes, especially those townscapes that have survived, such as St. George’s Church. But of Melchers’ portraits, not surprisingly, there was generally little affinity expressed, except where the artist allows dramatic effects to assert themselves. In Head and Shoulders of a Male Nude Model the subject’s sheer force of personality grips you upon first encounter. You want to know more. Who is he and what’s with the attitude?
That’s the sign of a great artist – one who possesses the ability to render not only a good likeness, but something of one’s character.
As to my personal favorites, well, some aren’t even in the Belmont collection, and one of them was painted not by Gari Melchers, but by his artist wife. And don’t expect me to gravitate to the premier examples as personal favorites. Some paintings I favor more for their backstory than for the beauty and skill of their execution.
There are certain pictures that I wouldn’t rate as stand outs in my estimation of Melchers’ genius but for some expertly rendered detail or passage. I’m thinking, for example, of the earnest young choristers in The Choirmaster. Their sparkling eyes and delicately lit features remind us that only the very young can
possess such unblemished beauty. And regards The Nativity, which is hugely popular with our guests and staff, you have to appreciate the poignant naturalism of the mother, slumped over in sleep at the foot of her newborn. In these pictures is the realization of Melchers’ credo to paint only that which is “true and clear.”
I wish Melchers had picked up his pastels more often, for in this medium I believe resides his special talent. A perfect example is the Mother and Child. Occasionally Melchers is guilty of overworking his canvases, but in pastel he is a more efficient artist. The fluency of his hand and economy of expression is
equal to any Cassatt or Sargent. There is genius in those trembling lines, accented with one or two arbitrary strokes of crimson. Those light touches infuse his vision of motherhood with warm pulsating emotion. The timeless and universal appeal of this exquisite pastel secures his reputation forever. Just ask the five-year-old visitor who declared the “lady chest-feeding her baby” as her own particular favorite!
The Bride, painted around 1903, pictures a frequent model of Melchers, a green-eyed beauty called Anna. The Bride represents Gari Melchers at the pinnacle of his technical skill and symbolic messaging. Anna’s visage was painstakingly built up in layer after layer of paint to produce the effect of a round and real being. Her startling naturalism is the hallmark of Melchers’ early reputation. She is so lifelike one is almost tempted to raise a mirror to ascertain her breath.
Is Anna rigid in pose because of the long exposures required to photograph this rite of passage? Or perhaps she is simply stiff with anxiety as she embarks into a new and unknown life. Melchers’ Dutch peasants are often infused with overt or implied spirituality. The subject here is a country bride, but it cannot be denied, given Melchers’ proclivities, that she serves also as a metaphor for the saintly life, a modern bride of Christ with her bible and orange blossoms, symbol of her purity. She projects the supernatural air of a religious icon, as if transfixed by the sacred import of the marriage rite. Melchers doesn’t quit there. The painter pairs the subject with a chip-carved frame that, at its corners, replicates the stained-glass rose windows of Gothic cathedrals. The iconography is all carefully choreographed. Anna’s is a memorable face with a timeless sentiment, the key ingredients in the world’s most iconic portraits.
Around the time of his marriage, Melchers’ interests began to turn from homey working-class subjects towards scenes of affluent women at leisure, indoors and out, including pretty and neatly starched domestics. This thematic shift reflected his own commercial success and the happiness of his married life. I think Belmont’s The China Closet stands head and shoulders above all his other interiors. With his emphasis on rich chromatic effects and the decorative quality of light, it stands comparison with the best of contemporary French impressionism. But I’m drawn, in particular, to the psychology of the narrative -namely- the deferential housemaid who serves an exacting mistress. Again, it’s the authenticity of Melchers’ subjects that is his métier.
I really am drawn to the late landscapes such as Early Spring Landscape. Who would envisage a Virginia landscape, clothed in all her spring splendor, and expect to see a clothes line included? That’s what I admire here, Melchers’ ability to convey charm and beauty even in the most prosaic subjects.
I’m very fond of Cottage in Snow, the only painting our organization purchased for inclusion into an already vast collection. It pictures an old stone building that once stood in the front pasture of Belmont, the atmosphere veiled in snow. His brushwork, typically characterized as gestural and heavily textured, is particularly delicate here, and combined with his moody palette reinforces the quiet reverie of the darkening landscape.
Then there are the pictures that appeal to the art historian in me, to my appreciation for historical precedence. The Hunters is one, owned by the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, SC. It surprises me that no writer has ever commented on the direct reference of the painting to Jan Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow. It is so obvious to me.
In 1565, the great Flemish master painted a series of large fanciful landscapes depicting man’s labors in nature throughout the seasons. In Bruegel’s snow and ice-bound Hunters, peasants enjoy the one time in the year when they are freed from farming and husbandry in order to hunt. Laden with game, they trudge across a snowy foreground against a majestic sweep of terrain and a microcosm of human activity in the distance. Bruegel’s scene is fictitious, but Melchers’ was painted from his front lawn, and reserves any sharp-eyed observation for the two characters in the foreground.
Melchers penned several letters to his friend and patron Rush Hawkins to say how bowled over he was with old masters like Bruegel, “these old Johnnies could paint!” and again when recalling their encounter with the Bruegel series in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum:
“ . . . could anything be finer and rarer than those things we saw together in Vienna. Never will I forget our starting our visit in that room with the series of large Bruegels and then the primitives and Venetians and those half dozen wonderful Velasquezes.”
And speaking of Velasquez. . . artistic moochery like the kind we see in The Hunters fascinates me, which is why I find Mrs. Melchers’ painting, The Model, 1929, so very clever. It is a good likeness of her husband working at his easel, but look at how she employed the device of the mirror to reflect an image of Melchers’ model, as well as the painting for which the model sits. She has directly quoted from Diego Velasquez’s 1656 painting in the Prado, Las Meninas or Maids of Honor.
It is thought that the Spanish artist was inspired to paint Las Meninas after the Infanta Margarita and her entourage burst into the studio while he was working on a portrait of their majesties, Philip IV and his consort Mariana. The painting showcases Velasquez’s mastery of light, direct and reflected, and complicated spatial relationships. It became an icon because of its compositional tricks and unsolved mysteries. What he’s given us is a picture within a picture, for the faces of the Infanta’s parents as they pose for the artist appear in the mirror on the back wall. Or are they looking on as their daughter is being painted by the artist? And the identity of the man appearing in the illuminated threshold has never been discovered. Velasquez’s mature style, characterized by its great facility of brushwork and rich color palette, was greatly admired by painters of the early modern era. We have already read how much he was admired by Gari and Corinne Melchers. The couple collected postcards and reproductions of his work on their travels and, tellingly, Mrs. Melchers received a book on the artist for Christmas 1921.
Well, that was a fun exercise for me. Now it’s your turn. I invite you to share your favorites and why!