Editor's note: The following essay  by Stephen May was published in Resource Library on September 30, 2004.
Return From Oblivion: Reassessing the Art of Gari Melchers
by Stephen May
Over the course of a distinguished career that spanned more than a half century in Europe and America, Gari Melchers (1860-1932) created highly acclaimed paintings of Dutch peasant and religious life, fine Impressionist views of Europe, New York and the American South, perceptive portraits and ambitious murals in public buildings. After enjoying extraordinary critical and public success in his lifetime, he slipped into oblivion after his death, his name rarely mentioned in art histories and his works seldom displayed in major museums. In recent years there have been sporadic signs that scholars and curators are interested in dusting off the reputation of this one-time international superstar and acquainting the general public with his achievements. In 1976, Michael Quick, then Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, included Melchers in an exhibition entitled "American Expatriate Painters of the Late Nineteenth Century. In the accompanying catalogue he wrote: "It is only a matter of time until Gari Melchers . . . will be accorded the attention due his considerable abilities, and he will again be honored as one of our best artists of the late nineteenth century." In 1990-91, a retrospective exhibition, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, and traveling to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in Savannah, National Academy of Design in New York City, Detroit Institute of Arts, and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, was well received by diverse audiences.. This rewarding show underscored the high quality of the various styles in which Melchers worked.
Born in Detroit of German immigrant parents, Melchers was the son of Julius Melchers, a respected art teacher and accomplished professional sculptor and woodcarver known for church furnishings and cigar-store Indians. Young Gari studied drawing under his father's tutelage before heading to Düsseldorf in 1877 to learn the fine points of academic art. Four years later he moved to Paris, studying first at the Academie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre, then at the École des Beaux-Arts. Within a year he painted The Letter (1882, Corcoran Gallery of Art), a sizeable, Vermeer-like canvas showing two Breton peasant women standing before a light-filled window reading a newly arrived letter. Accepted at the Paris Salon of 1882, this realistic work established the subject matter, style and subdued palette that characterized Melchers's work for years. At the tender age of 22 he was recognized as an important artist.
Having completed his formal art education, Melchers decided -- as did many of his American contemporaries -- to remain in Europe. While maintaining a studio in Paris, he settled with fellow American painter George Hitchcock in the remote Dutch fishing village of Egmond. The expatriates were attracted to the Netherlands by their appreciation for America's Dutch heritage, nostalgia for the pre-industrial past they found in the simplicity and self-sufficiency of Dutch pastoral life, and the legacy of Dutch art.
Egmond, an isolated enclave frozen in time, provided an ideal haven and offered a variety of subjects to the young artist. In his fieldstone-and-brick studio atop dunes overlooking the North Sea, Melchers created a visual record of a bygone slice of life in Holland: young women working or resting on the dunes, farmers laboring in the fields, fishermen conversing, and pious local citizens worshiping in austere churches. These large, strong and realistic paintings conformed to the artistic creed posted over the door of Melchers's Egmond studio: Waar en Klaar (True and Clear). They were so accurate that early in his career the expatriate American was often mistaken for a Dutch artist.
The stylistic clarity and straightforward honesty of these Dutch genre works won immediate critical praise and honors. The Sermon (1886, Smithsonian American Art Museum), focusing on the humble piety of his Egmond neighbors, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of that year and went on to win prizes in Amsterdam and Munich. In Holland, depicting peasant women in bright, decorative garb surrounded by flower-specked dunes topped by a windmill, was a hit at the Paris Salon of 1887. In 1889, Melchers shared a Grand Prize with John Singer Sargent at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Eventually, the directness, empathy and insight of his cosmopolitan canvases earned favorable comparison back home to the work of such titans as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer and, in Europe, Édouard Manet.
During the next decades, while Dutch themes continued to dominate his output, Melchers experimented with a variety of styles and subjects. Inspired by the Hague School,  he executed a series of somber biblical canvases. As his interest in Dutch peasantry shifted from narrative to decorative concerns, he produced The Skaters (c. 1893), a delightful exercise in color, pattern and texture. Spurred by his admiration for fellow American-expatriate Mary Cassatt, Melchers created a number of affectionate mother-and-child pictures almost identical to hers in pose and color.
From his base in the Netherlands Melchers enhanced his reputation during travels and exhibitions throughout Europe. He kept his name and works before the public in the United States during frequent visits there. In 1893 Melchers was invited to prepare murals for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he worked with an all-star group of contemporary American painters. His enormous, allegorical murals were located in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building. Titled The Arts of Peace and The Arts of War, they are now installed in the library of the University of Michigan. The Chicago murals led to a commission on the same subjects for the Library of Congress in 1895. With their lack of background details and emphasis on flattened forms that suggests a bas-relief, these works owe much to the example of Melchers's friend, the leading French muralist, Purvis de Chavannes. Later, Melchers executed large murals for the Detroit Public Library and the Missouri State Capitol.
In 1903 Melchers married Corinne Lawton Mackall, a Savannah native studying art in Europe. The happiness of that long-lasting union shines through in several portraits of his bride, notably one in an elaborate satin dress of 1905. Melchers also used as a model the wife of his Egmond painting partner, Hitchcock, showing her in a domestic scene with her maid in The China Closet (1904-05) and emphasizing her classic beauty in The Delft Horse (c. 1900). One wonders if her sorrowful look in the later canvas reflects a premonition that within a few years Hitchcock would abandon her and marry one of his students. The former Mrs. Hitchcock later married British writer Charles Lewis Hind and wrote the first major monograph on Melchers.
Melchers's group of sumptuous paintings of elegant, upper-class Dutch interior scenes often feature his beautiful young wife, as in Penelope (1910, Corcoran Gallery). These images of domestic tranquility and equally serene landscapes such as the sun-filled In My Garden (c. 1903, Butler Institute of American Art) were painted with verve and a brighter palette, prompted by the artist's increasing affinity for Impressionism. For the remainder of his career Melchers often painted hybrid Impressionist works, combining the sculptural forms of his old academic style with broken brushwork, generous doses of sunlight and lighter colors.
The totality of his European output made Melchers a celebrity of international stature, whose works were lauded and sold well on both sides of the Atlantic. His visibility on the American art scene was enhanced when he was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1905 and an Academician the following year. "There is hardly an honor that can be given an artist that is not his," observed his biographer in 1928.  Melchers's works hang today in numerous European museums and in such important American institutions as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Freer Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Butler Institute of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Melchers kept his house in Egmond until 1922, although between 1909 and 1914 he taught at the Ducal Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar, Germany. Returning to America at the outbreak of World War I, Melchers reopened his studio in Manhattan and plunged into the city's art life. He chose to live, however, at Belmont, a handsome old estate in Fredericksburg, Virginia, fifty miles south of Washington. (Today, Belmont is open to the public. On site is by far the largest collection of the painter's work anywhere, including many of his finest canvases; it is well worth a visit. See sidebar.)
The Virginia location assured Melchers the quiet he needed for his work, but was within relatively easy striking distance by train of the nation's capital and New York. He immediately set out to record the people and landscape of the region. Because he was a true international artist, Melchers readily adapted to portraying this new area, according to Diane Lesko, who organized the 1990-91 retrospective. "He painted like a Dutchman when he was in Holland, like a German in Germany, and like a Southerner in the South," she has observed. "He repeated certain themes over the years, but his work continually reflected his sense of place."  Captivated by the simple folk and picturesque scenery of the South, Melchers painted a series of affectionate, yet realistic canvases that ranged from a classroom of South Carolina black children to sturdy Virginia farm women. In The Hunters (c. 1925) he employed a bright palette, heavy impasto and decorative touches in a panoramic, Bruegel-like depiction of a leisure-time pursuit of his neighbors. Strong, dignified images of working men and women such as this are reminiscent of his earlier paintings of Dutch peasants.
As distinguished art historian William H. Gerdts has observed, Melchers was the "most famous American artist working in the South in the early 1900s." He was also the standout Impressionist painter in a region largely bereft of adherents to that style. "For reasons that are not yet clear, Southern artists seldom experimented with Impressionism, nor were collectors in the area attracted to it, and Northern artists who worked in the South rarely were of an Impressionist persuasion," says Gerdts. He singles out Melchers as one of the two best Impressionists in the region -- the other is the now-unknown Eliot Carter -- and adds that" [A]lthough Melchers was a relative latecomer to Impressionism, his achievements in that aesthetic were of high quality." 
Indeed, Melchers's regional scenes are lovely, sparkling and evocative. They come as a happy revelation to those who associate him solely with Dutch genre paintings. In Young Woman Sewing (1919), which Gerdts calls "a classic example of domestic American Impressionism," Melchers depicted his wife seated by a luminous window in the drawing room of their Virginia home. Painting with an extremely loose hand, the artist concentrated on jewel-like color contrasts between the subdued interior and the inviting garden in blazing sunlight outside. It is one of his most memorable images.
Melchers always felt a special kinship with the quiet character and simple beauty of small towns, whether in coastal Holland or the rural South. Utilizing heavily applied, bright colors with careful attention to the effects of season and climate, he captured on canvas the laid-back charm of life in the southern countryside as well as any artist ever has. His numerous paintings of churches, stores, houses, street scenes, landscapes and local folk around Fredericksburg sensitively recreated the slow-paced ambience, shimmering sunlight and peaceful beauty of the area. In Early Spring Landscape (c. 1918) he conveyed the subtle colors, venerable structures and picturesque scenery of spring in a small southern town. In the soft hues of St. George's Church (c. 1920), he depicted flowering trees and old brick buildings in downtown Fredericksburg, a tranquil scene little changed today.
During the time he lived in Europe and again after his return in 1916, Melchers rented a studio in the Beaux-Arts Building (80 West 40th Street in Manhattan) that still overlooks Bryant Park. Over the years he exhibited at the Montross, Milch and MacBeth galleries. He was Chairman of the New Society of Artists and President of the Century Association. He was a long-time member and generous supporter of the Artists Fellowship, which provides financial and emotional assistance to artists in need; its Gari Melchers Memorial Medal is awarded annually to a person who has significantly advanced the interests of the fine arts profession.
Melchers's membership in the Players Club brought him into contact with Impressionist leaders of the day, including Childe Hassam. Melchers's Bryant Park (Twilight) (c. 1906-07) and Snow (1921), featuring views from his Beaux-Arts Building window, are strikingly similar to scenes painted by Hassam. Melchers also responded to friendships with realists George Bellows, George Luks and John Sloan with paintings that captured the smoky dynamism of wharves and waterfronts along the East and Hudson rivers. In addition to playing leading roles in the activities of major museums around the country, Melchers found time to execute fine portraits of such notables as Andrew Mellon and Theodore Roosevelt.
These wide-ranging activities, his genial, open personality and deep respect for his art led to an unusual outpouring of sorrow when he died in 1932, at the age of 72. The New York Times devoted an extraordinary three columns to his obituary, describing him as "one of the foremost painters, who became internationally famous," and saluting a career "glittering with medals and honors." A Times editorial praised his "distinguished" work as an artist, noted the "charm of personality which won him a distinctive place in the community," and concluded that "he will be remembered. . . for his individual qualities as a most interesting and attractive figure of New York life."  Major museums organized retrospectives following Melchers's death, and contemporary critics expressed confidence about the durability of his high reputation. But he and his art soon faded into the shadows, his name familiar only to a small group of art historians, curators and collectors. The work of Gari Melchers is good enough to stand the test of time. This one-time major figure in art on both sides of the Atlantic deserves to regain the attention and appreciation of art-loving Americans.
1. Henriette Lewis-Hind, Gari Melchers, Painter (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1928), p. 6.
2. Michael Quick, American Expatriate Painters of the Late Nineteenth Century (Dayton: Dayton Art Institute, 1976), quoted in Gari Melchers: 1860-1932, American Painter (New York: Graham Gallery, 1978), p. 9. The Skaters (c. 1893, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), one of three Melchers paintings in the expatriates show, was lent to the White House and hung in the west corridor, outside President Jimmy Carter's study.
3. Founded by Josef Israels, whose best-known followers included Anton Mauve and the three Maris brothers, the contemporary Hague School shared with the Barbizon School an affinity for nature and empathy for the simple people of the land, along the lines of Jean François Millet in France.
4. Lewis-Hind, op. cit., p. 13. "Melchers has been awarded gold medals and medals of honor in nearly every capital of Europe where they are bestowed," added Lewis-Hind.
5. Remarks by Diane Lesko at Melchers symposium, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, March 1990. Dr. Lesko is now Executive Director of the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah. The best source of information about Melchers and his oeuvre is the catalogue accompanying the 1990-91 retrospective: Diane Lesko, Gari Melchers: A Retrospective Exhibition (St. Petersburg, Florida: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990). The 240-page book contains insightful chapters by Lesko and eight Melchers authorities, reproductions of major works (many in color), vintage photographs, a chronology and selected bibliography.
6. William Gerdts, American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), pp. 240-42.
7. Ibid., p. 241.
8. New York Times (December 1, 1932). By contrast, when Hassam, who is a household name today, died in 1935, his Times obituary ran less than two full columns.
Gari Melchers bought Belmont, a handsome estate with a Georgian mansion, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1916. He lived and worked there until his death in 1932. His wife stayed on until she died twenty-three years later. In her will, Corinne Melchers gave the property and its collections to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Belmont, the Gari Melchers Estate and Memorial Gallery, is maintained by Mary Washington College of Fredericksburg and run by a professional staff. Set on twenty-seven acres of green rolling hills overlooking the river, the 1761 white frame house was enlarged by the artist to include a five-sided sun porch. Furnished with an eclectic selection of pieces acquired by the couple when they lived in Europe, its ample rooms contain French and Oriental carpets, old porcelain, china and crystal. There are notable works of art not only by Melchers, but by Purvis de Chavannes, George Hitchcock, Berthe Morisot and Frans Snyder. The adjoining stone studio was built by Melchers in 1923 from the remains of a bridge dynamited by Union forces during the Civil War, and fieldstone from houses destroyed in nearby battles. The light-filled studio remains outfitted with his workbench, brushes, palettes, easels and other tools of the trade. Medals and other honors on display attest to Melchers's achievements. The green lawn, flower gardens, boxwood promenade, gazebo and ancient elms and oaks reflect the tranquility of the artist's life. Under the leadership of Director David Berreth and Curator Joanna D. Catron, the site has been refurbished and a visitor's center and museum shop have been added. For information: (540) 654-1015 or Belmont@mwc.edu
About Stephen May
Stephen May divides his time between Washington, D.C., and mid-coast Maine. An independent historian, writer and lecturer about art and culture, he writes for various national and regional magazines and newspapers, and gives lectures around the country.
RL Editor's Note:
1. The above 2004 essay was previously published in American Arts Quarterly, Volume 21, Number 3, Summer 2004, with accompanying illustrations.The essay was reprinted in Resource Library with permission of Mr. May. We wish to extend our appreciation to Ms. Hydee Schaller, Director of the Mitchell Gallery of St. John's College for her help in contacting the author. Stephen May will give a lecture on "Louise Nevelson: An American Original" at 7:30 p.m. on October 13, 2004 at the Mitchell Gallery, St. John's College, Annapolis, MD. Resource Library does not have permission from the author to share contact information.
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