Who Was Gari Melchers?
Never heard of Gari Melchers? Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Nor is Melchers, for he represents a significant number of early twentieth century American artists who made a good living through their craft and earned critical praise. While they produced an immense body of work, most, like Melchers, are eclipsed in popular memory by such names as John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Rediscovery of Gari Melchers – as well as the many other artists of his time – testifies to the full breadth of our country’s artistic vibrancy in the fertile crossroads between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In so doing, a more complete story of our cultural heritage finally emerges, “true and clear.”
Gari Melchers was born on August 11, 1860, to a family congenial to the arts. His father, Julius Melchers, was a German-born sculptor and pupil of Carpeaux. Young Melchers received his first instruction from Julius, who was a “stern and exacting master of the old school,” and it is reasonable to assume that some of Gari’s own painstaking method was acquired through him.
At seventeen, Melchers enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art in Dusseldorf, Germany, to study figure painting. The curriculum emphasized well-modeled form, hard-edged realism and the finish of the old masters.
Melchers continued his training at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris in 1881, studying under Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. For Melchers, who was already advanced in his training, the Ecole provided little in terms of technique, but his experiences there and at Julian’s would affect his development as a leader of the American school of painters in Paris.
While still a student, Melchers fell under the spell of the French Naturalist painters, led by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). Lepage painted unidealized views of contemporary country life. His pictures were painted in open-air light and combined vigorous brushwork and brilliant color with an exacting eye for place and personality.
In 1884, Melchers joined another American expatriate, George Hitchcock (1850-1913), at Egmond-aan-Zee, Holland. There the two artists founded an art colony and built reputations as chroniclers of Dutch peasant life. Thematically and stylistically, the two artists were inspired by a group of contemporary Dutch artists collectively known as the Hague School painters. Melchers’ landmark painting, The Sermon, 1886, was painted in Egmond. It is a monumental canvas in which the painter portrayed a young peasant girl asleep during a church service. Special emphasis was given to descriptive detail and narrative. This honest characterization of working-class life became one of the day’s most beloved examples of rustic naturalism. Fittingly, over the door to his studio he nailed a plaque proclaiming his artistic credo “Waar en Klaar” (Dutch for “true and clear”).
The Communion, The Pilots and The Choirmaster followed, garnering him an international audience, especially in America and Germany, where sentiment ran high for the piety and work ethic of the peasant class.
The1890s saw his best portrait work, subjects with names like Vanderbilt, Mellon and Roosevelt ensuring his reputation and earning him his greatest financial reward. His most original pictorial format became anonymous portraiture: paintings whose titles identify the subject’s vocation rather than identity —The Sailor and His Dog, The Fencer, and The Shipbuilder.
About this time Melchers also began to experiment with the portrayal of biblical subjects from a contemporary perspective, in emulation of the style of the German painter Fritz von Uhde. The Nativity is the finest example of his work in that genre.
Drawing on his association with Belgian art circles and his friendship with the French Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes, Melchers began to invest scenes of everyday life with spiritual overtones (The Bride). Often he took these pictures a step further, endowing wholesome peasant girls with supernatural haloes that transform them into modern metaphors for the spiritual life.
At the turn of the century, Melchers entered a phase of greater decorative consciousness in which he emphasized vibrant color, natural lighting, looser brushwork and decorative pattern. This modified Impressionist style provided a better vehicle for his new interest in the subject of modern women and children portrayed in beautiful interiors and gardens At Home, (Winged Victory); The Unpretentious Garden, The Open Door and The Christening). Interestingly, the pronounced gaiety of his work in this period coincides with his recent marriage to a young American art student, Corinne Mackall.
Out-of-doors, Melchers concentrated on recording the poetic effects of light and atmosphere in Impressionist-inspired landscapes like Bryant Park (Twilight), Hudson River and The Wartburg, building on what would become a favorite topic in his later years.
As an expatriate, Melchers enjoyed his greatest popularity in Germany, where in 1909 he accepted an appointment as Professor of Art at the Grand Ducal Saxony School of Art in Weimar. There he remained until the First World War had all but shut down the school.
It was about this time that Melchers began to experiment with the nude as subject matter, doing so on a large and provocative scale. Young Woman at Her Toilet is an example of what would become a major preoccupation of the artist until the end of his career.
Melchers returned to the U.S. in 1915 to open a studio at the Beaux-Arts building at Bryant Park in New York City. He began the final chapter of his career by assuming leadership and organizational roles within the art community there. He was an academician of the National Academy of Design, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and served as president of the New Society of Artists from 1920-1928.
Melchers longed to escape the city for a pastoral retreat much like the one he and his wife had enjoyed in Holland. They found their country get-a-way at Belmont, an eighteenth century estate in Falmouth, Virginia, near Fredericksburg. Here Melchers was happiest painting for the sake of painting itself. He took up his brush to paint pure and figurative landscapes like never before, probably on account of his regular association with leading American Impressionists like Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, and Edward Redfield, to name a few (A Native of Virginia, The Hunters and St. George’s Church).
Despite his advancing years, Melchers was named to the Virginia Art Commission, chaired the Smithsonian Commission to Establish a National Gallery of Art (today’s Smithsonian American Art Museum) and was elected trustee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Gari Melchers died at Belmont in 1932, just as a major retrospective of his work opened to the public in New York. The show was well attended due to the high regard held for him by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, his international renown had already begun to fade. Yet while Gari Melchers’ canvases may never place him alongside his more famous contemporaries, his story is well worth telling. Indeed, without the story so well preserved at Belmont, the tale of an entire generation of American artistic endeavor is incomplete.