Studio Decorated for Holidays

25 Years of Holidays

Studio Decorated for HolidaysThe upcoming December 10 Holiday Open House marks the 25th such event that I have overseen as Director of Gari Melchers Home and Studio.  The event has evolved from a free community-wide evening packing as many as 500 visitors into a fast-paced 2 hours, to a more intimate invitational event thanking our loyal Friends of Belmont for their annual support. This year’s Holiday event is again open to the public for a nominal charge to defer expenses (Friends of Belmont are still free).

When I arrived in Fredericksburg in November of 1990, the first event I was drawn into was the Holiday Open House, which had been organized by Curator Joanna Catron since the early 1980s.  Joanna was assisted by only 5 docents at the time, who all worked several days per week giving tours (today we spread the hours among over 20 docents who average a day a week or a weekend a month).

The exterior decorations were, like today, rotated among the seven clubs of the Fredericksburg Area Council of Garden Clubs, and the interior house decorations were overseen by Joanna and often created by the docents themselves.  Fresh natural trees and greens were still used inside those days, before the concern for pest infestation and damage to the collections was as pronounced.

In 1990, we had no visitor center or museum shop, and the parking lot was a third the size of today.  Depending on the severity of the weather in mid-December, our then caretaker Bill Chandler and his wife Maxine would station themselves with flashlights to direct traffic, and if wet or snowy, Bill often had to have his old Farmall tractor out and poised to pull stuck cars out of the quickly muddy grass field that was used for overflow parking (tow trucks had to be called on more than one occasion).  We sometimes had to have the Sheriff direct traffic for us. And always in the dark—no spotlights or floodlights for visitors or cars to find their way!

Some years we had school music groups perform in the old studio, or choral groups stand on the second floor house porch to serenade visitors.  We provided cookies and punch for visitors, but learned very quickly that the cookies lasted in inverse proportion to the number of student musicians, and rarely lasted through the first hour!

Before the visitor center was opened in 1995 (and even after) waiting lines often stretched from the house porch out to the parking lot, in below-freezing temperatures, year after year.  Joanna and I would take turns bundled up as the front door greeters and marshals, letting in only as many visitors as had just left.

In 2000 we had a very special guest just before the Holiday Open House.  Willard Scott, famed television weatherman, sat himself in the parlor amidst specially installed decorations by local designer Ken Kroko to tape narration for an HGTV special called “Christmas across America.”  The filming took three days, during which all the docents got their turn chatting with the charming host, and for authenticity real fires where lit in the fireplaces for the first time in decades (with a fire marshall on duty throughout!).  Oh, and Joanna got to sit on Willard’s lap (just kidding, but many photos were taken)!

Joanna Catron and Willard Scott

Today Belmont is much changed, but the Melchers’ home remains as welcoming and festive at the holidays as it was 25 years ago.  I look forward to welcoming the community again as we celebrate the season in style!




A Plein Air Artist’s Paradise

Artists of all types and ages are encouraged to use Belmont as the backdrop for their artistic pursuits.

Gari Melchers enjoyed plein air painting his entire career.  Of special note to us are the pictures he produced at or around Belmont, his Virginia country home from 1916 to 1932.  In some cases, the views he transferred to canvas are remarkably unchanged today.



Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios

Did you know that Gari Melchers Home & Studio is a member of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program (HAHS) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation? HAHS is a coalition of more than 30 museums that were the homes and working studios of American artists. Come, witness creativity!






photo of Mason Dillon behind the plow

Back in the Day

“Back in the day” Belmont in September was a lively place, lively in the sense of human activity as well as the emerging splendor of autumn.   According to Corinne Melchers’ diary of the 1920s, the flurry of harvest time labors included canning tomatoes, beans and apples, bottling wine, cutting hay, shocking corn, keeping vigil at a calving, and cleaning the flower beds.   Gari Melchers, if at home for a rest, was quite naturally lured out of doors, walking the environs of the property to document it all with his animated brushwork and alluring colors.

Another excitement was the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, which rolled around every September, to the great anticipation of everyone including Gari and Corinne Melchers. The horse races were a favorite attraction, inspiring a painting by Gari Melchers titled The Race, Country Fair. The couple entered Lady Corinne and Rex in the judging of livestock, and Mason Dillon, Belmont’s long-time groundskeeper, loaded up gallons of fresh milk for the milk shake booth Mrs. Melchers helped man at the fairgrounds. Needless to say, the current staff at Belmont is grateful that the culinary and calving activities are a thing of the past!

Pictured is a photo of Mason Dillon behind the plow and two paintings by Melchers entitled Shocking Corn (private collection) and The Race, Country Fair, all dating to the 1920s.

photo of Mason Dillon behind the plow"Shocking Corn," by Gari Melchers, private collection, circa 1920s "The Race, County Fair," by Gari Melchers, circa 1920s




2014 Wedding Sampler

Held earlier this year, Belmont’s sixth annual Wedding Sampler was another successful bridal show.  We had twenty-three participating vendors and all who attended gave positive feedback.  It was a perfect gathering of vendors with samples and information on their products and services.  The guests received valuable information on planning their special day.

2014 Wedding Sampler Vendors:

Anytime Limousines, Cakes in Art, Caroline Street Catering, Charlotte Parish Photography, Classical Expressions Trio, David Weadon Photography, Eric Herod Entertainment, Fredericksburg Ayres Flute Quartet, Formal Envy, Hartwood Photography, Jane Guerin, K Pearlman Photography, Party Services by Dori,  R&R Catering, Richard Green Entertainment, Simply Sweet, Sodexo, The Icing Baking Co., TJs Catering, VA Wedding Belles, Weddings by Ginny, White House Catering, and Wolfcrest Photography.

Many thanks to all who made this another successful year! Some of the best caterers, photographers, cake specialists, DJs and florists participate in this annual event.

We are working hard to get ready for the January 18, 2015, Wedding Sampler.  The event will be held from 1:00pm – 4:00pm.  General admission is $10, University of Mary Washington Students only have to pay $5!

Bel 2156

Let’s Face It! Remembering Gari Melchers

Hang around artists long enough and you’re bound to have your portrait painted. That explains why there are so many portraits of Gari Melchers by his friends in the collection at Belmont.

When an early portrait of Gari Melchers recently surfaced, I got to thinking about all the renderings of him I’d seen over the years. The variety of sketches, paintings and sculpture not only complements the photographic record we have of him, but as subjective invention, they also hint at the strong and affectionate bond that existed between Melchers and his associates. Here are several, but by no means all the examples.

Sometimes artists paint one another for amusement. Take for example the anonymous caricature of a dapper Gari Melchers. Is the artist poking fun at Melchers’ ears or his sartorial discomfort (Melchers professed a habitual preference for wearing an old pullover and clogs)? Bel 261

Getting a live model to stay still is a perennial frustration for an artist, which is probably why a furtive companion couldn’t pass up the chance to document Melchers catching forty winks in this quick pen and ink sketch.

Bel 2068

Melchers liked a good jest himself. In his 1897 rendition of Christ and His Pilgrims at Emmaus, he copied this profile portrait painted of himself by fellow American expatriate, James J. Shannon, for the face of Christ.

Bel 1826 color (1)

When models aren’t available or are too expensive, art students usually turn to their classmates as subjects. Melchers was a strikingly handsome young man, with soft grey eyes, a sculpted nose and cleft chin, and a pleasing bow-shaped mouth. No wonder he was sketched so often. By the time his training was complete, he sported a moustache and goatee, and possessed a decidedly cosmopolitan elegance, at least in the eyes of former classmates Fritz Strobentz, an unidentified classmate and Henry Hamel.

In commemoration of Melchers’ first international success, Strobentz again painted his old friend and classmate at work at the site of his award-winning painting, The Sermon, 1886. Perhaps Melchers and Strobentz anticipated a winning streak, for it deliberately documents Melchers at work on the concept for his next major salon entry, In Holland.strobentz painting in church

Which reminds me of the early portrait which recently came to light. A private dealer and art consultant brought another portrait to my attention that was painted by a classmate of Melchers, the Swiss Nabi painter, Felix Vallotton. The Melchers portrait was purchased by the dealer at a Paris sale in 1999 as one of six portraits by Vallotton of former classmates of the Academie Julian in Paris. You can already see in Vallotton’s portrait of Melchers something of the flat, simplified and strongly delineated figuration that typified his later avant-garde style. Melchers looks every bit the serious and introspective painter described by biographers in these years, when he was working so determinedly to make a name for himself at the Paris salon.

GM by Felix Vallotton ca 85-86

shannon portraitBy the time of his marriage at age 43, Melchers was a critical and commercial success, and portraits of him convey a sense of his new found confidence and ease. I refer to James J. Shannon’s Portrait of Gari Melchers as an example. I tend to think of this as a wedding portrait, though that may not have been the official intent. Undoubtedly it was painted around the time of his vows, and his apparel is appropriately stylish and his wedding ring visible. Melchers’ likeness bears an air of dignity and taste, surrounded as he is by old world antiques like the Flemish portrait of an aristocratic girl and the Dutch candle sconce serving as decorative backdrop.

Melchers went on a driving tour of Southern France and Spain in 1904 with two wealthy industrialist brothers, Charles and James Deering. The road systems in Spain were still fairly primitive and the threesome was often beset by punctures and bad weather. Consequently a few occasions called for Melchers, ever the dedicated artist, to climb aboard a donkey and set out for the frontier in order to sketch the natives and surrounding countryside, as recorded here by one of his more artistically endowed traveling companions.Deering's draw

A decade later, while serving as a distinguished professor at the Grand Ducal Academy of Art in Weimar, Germany, Melchers’ German colleague Fritz Mackensen, director of the school, hastily produced a sketch of the artist with his eyes lowered over his reading. The newspapers at this time were full of bad news as the war in Europe escalated, eventually sending Melchers and his wife home to the United States for good.

Bel 2156Emil Fuchs was an Austrian-American painter and sculptor known for his portraits of wealthy socialites. While living in Great Britain in 1915, a wave of anti-German sentiment caused Fuchs to move permanently to New York. He produced this bust of Gari Melchers the following year. Fuchs had surgery for cancer in 1928, and in anticipation of a death with great suffering he shot himself at the Hotel des Artistes in New York on 13 January, 1929. The Brooklyn Museum owns the bronze bust, a plaster copy of which is in the Smithsonian.Emil Fuchs Bust of GM 1916 smithsonian

Back home in the post war years Melchers was depicted in a classically inspired low relief portrait by the eminent American sculptor Paul Manship. By now Melchers was a well-respected representative of the old guard of artists and a leader of several arts clubs and organizations. Manship casts him in profile like the face of a Roman emperor stamped on a coin, an honorable presentation for a distinguished man of arts.

Bel 1924    Manship

But there’s more than one side to a man. The artist’s wife recorded a much older and beefier Melchers at his easel in a droll little pencil sketch from the late 1920s.

Bel 2209

"St. George's Church," by Gari Melchers

French vs. American

A young woman working on the topic of Gari Melchers recently asked me if French impressionism was different from the impressionism practiced by American painters. What a good question! Even in French impressionism there are many variants, so let me try to give you a simple explanation.

In the 1870s impressionism emerged as an art movement of Paris-based artists, with Claude Monet as its leading exponent. Because it was considered an anti-academic art movement, even a scam by some, it initially met with harsh opposition, criticism which ironically seemed to help bring it into prominence and acceptance. Once it took off, the world never looked back, and in the last 50 years the best examples have fetched record setting prices.

So what was all the original fuss about? The impressionists were really after an authentic picture of the contemporary world around them, but their approach was diametrically opposed to the painting conventions practiced by the old state-sponsored art academy. And if you didn’t conform to their standards, you were thrown out on your ear, which is why the impressionists were forced to exhibit together in shows independent of the state-sponsored salon system. Throughout the 19th century, stylistic innovations typically spread quickly from Paris to other capitals of Europe. But it took a decade for impressionism to be accepted in the very place in which it was born.

How were the paintings of the impressionists different from the status quo? Firstly, the subjects they chose revolved around themselves and the leisure class, sometimes even the grittier side of life. Such themes were viewed by the academy as common compared to the elevated themes of history painting and the classical mythology they promoted, the themes of the impressionists certainly rankled them and their conventional tastes.

The impressionists often eschewed carefully balanced compositions in favor of cropped objects or things just out of view of the picture frame in order to heighten the impression of life captured in mid- action. These stylistic deviations also offended the conservatives.

And to further enhance the life-like immediacy of their subjects, which is at the heart of the most successful examples of impressionism, these art rebels aimed to convincingly reproduce observed light and its optical effects on reality, indoors and out.

Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro, View of Bazincourt, Sunset, 1892, private collection

In order to accomplish this, they employed loose, gestural brushstrokes that suggested or gave an “impression” of things seen rather than a literal replication of things. What’s more, they painted strokes of strong, pure color side by side rather than mixed together. The results were paintings that presented a view of the world through a glittering sunlit veil of color or a suffused atmospheric mantle of dim light, depending on the subject. Some of the group even attempted to apply in the execution of their pictures the findings of contemporary scientific studies on the chromatic effects of light. So impressionism was a new way of depicting experience; it even borrowed from the new technology of photography to achieve its expressive effects.

American artists, who by the 1870s felt it obligatory to have Paris training, were compelled to begin their study in the conservative art academies. Gradually they loosened their adherence to the old ways with the growing popularity of impressionism. Stylistically American art lagged behind European innovations by a good 10 to 20 years.

Isle of Shoals C Hassam

Childe Hassam, Isle of Shoals, Broad Cove, 1911, Honolulu Museum of Art

Impressionism was stylistically adopted into American practice according to three main routes. 1)French dealers brought sales and exhibitions of French impressionists works to the U.S. East coast cities from which it spread. 2)Many European-trained American artists who fell under the spell of impressionism returned stateside to teaching positions, passing on the lessons of their exposure to the art movement, and finally, 3)Many Americans studied directly under artists such as Monet and though they never returned home to work, were imitated by admiring American artists who witnessed their paintings in American shows, art journals and press of the day.

How was American Impressionism different?

The only real difference is
1) the subject- While in Europe, Americans loved to paint the same subjects as their European counterparts, i.e., the boulevards, the dance halls, open air parks, rolling meadows and seascapes, landmarks of Paris such as the cathedrals and train stations etc., but for the most part, with the First World War, many had repatriated and so began to paint the American scene in earnest rather than the European scene.


2) optics, and I overstate this to make a point,

Many Americans were reluctant to break down the 3-dimensional illusion of things in the way in which the French sometimes did. Often in French impressionist paintings, the outlines or hard edges of things, the contours of things, and the illusion of three dimensional space, dissolve under the harsh glare of rendered light to the point where the illusion of materiality is lost.

Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1906, L’Orangerie, Paris

When you look at a Monet water lily pond, for example, sometimes you can’t be sure that what you are looking at has any basis in reality. The French tended to paint the canvas surface with vibrant sensuousness while Americans aimed for the same thing, but without losing a sense of the mass of things within a convincing illusion of space.

"Dance at Bougival"

“Dance at Bougival” by Renoir, 1883, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Auguste Renoir was the least impressionist of the French group in that many of his figurative paintings (people) have such implied mass.

"St. George's Church," by Gari Melchers

Gari Melchers, Saint George’s Church, ca. 1920, Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Melchers adopted the subjects, palette and brushwork of the Impressionists and readapted it to the American scene when he returned to the States, but his figures remain very much of the material world in the way that do Renoir’s.