A Blue Chip Painting for Gari Melchers

Reprinted from Sketches, a Newsletter for the Friends of Belmont, Spring/Summer 2005

 

On December 1, 2004, some staggering news from New York may have had Gari Melchers doing flip-flops in his grave; the staff at Belmont certainly met the report with incredulous disbelief. Melchers’ Portrait of Mrs. H had just sold at Sotheby’s for $932,000, nearly 10 times the previous auction record for a work by the painter and well beyond the presale estimate of $80,000 to 120,000 set by Sotheby’s. Even the venerable old auction house, it would appear, was caught off guard.

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The subject of the portrait is Mrs. George Hitchcock, wife of American painter George Hitchcock, a long-time associate of Melchers. Painted in Holland in 1889, the soulful portrait of Mrs. H pictures Mrs. Hitchcock in strict profile, modeling a maternity jacket. In her left hand she holds an embroidery frame, from which the eye follows a fine strand of gold silk to the beautifully rendered fingers of her right hand. An extremely handsome woman in her own right, Melchers’ masterful touch endows Hitchcock’s image with the dramatic power of a Rembrandt. No wonder an early critic described the painting as “arresting.” The canvas earned Melchers some of the best criticism he ever received for portrait work and it must have been a personal favorite, judging by the frequency with which he exhibited it.

But what, exactly, accounts for its recent astronomical sale price? The cachet of ownership. For the past 33 years the portrait was owned by the late Rita and Daniel Fraad, pioneering collectors of American painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Fraad’s was one of the most coveted collections of its kind, with a long list of first-rate paintings collectors long hoped would return to the market.

Last summer, when the Fraad heirs decided to sell the entire collection, 272 lots, a frenzied bidding war over the consignment was waged between auction houses and dealers. Even before Sotheby’s won the consignment, they managed to arrange a separate, private sale of two of the collection’s most prized works, a George Bellows, Shore House and a John Singer Sargent, Venetian Street, for a whopping $35, 000,000. The figure rocked the American art market and stepped up the fevered interest surrounding the upcoming December sale.

The sale of the remaining Fraad collection totaled $65,083,400, the highest ever total for a single-owner sale in this category. As it turns out, the Portrait of Mrs. H went for a rather modest price, if nearly a million dollars can be called that, compared to works that sold by Winslow Homer, members of the Ashcan School and a few others by Sargent. It didn’t hurt either that a photograph of the Melchers portrait as it appeared hanging in the living room of the Fraad’s was prominently reproduced in the catalog of the Sotheby’s sale. Also included was an anecdote that underscores Daniel Fraad’s particular fondness for the Melchers: “Dan was a take no prisoners bidder (once raising his paddle at Sotheby’s and never lowering it until he had successfully purchased the Melchers Portrait of Mrs. H)” in 1972.

The Fraads were extremely selective about which pictures they would allow to be loaned. They agreed to loan the Melchers for the opening of the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980, but would not agree to loan it to the Melchers retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1990. At the Met a critic wrote, “The beauty of the sitter and the accomplished rendering of the subject caused this painting to stand out even in the company of works by well-known artists that were hung on the same wall.”

Even though the Portrait of Mrs. H is the only Melchers to carry the Fraad name, the auction record it achieved raises new interest in the artist, not to mention raising values. In the wake of this blockbuster sale we are likely to see more market activity in Melchers painting, at least for a while. A picture of New York Harbor painted by Melchers around 1906 has just been made available, for instance, by a Palm Beach dealer.

My office is beginning to receive calls from collectors asking whether they need to reappraise the value of their Melchers paintings for insurance purposes. An insurance value is the price set on an object based on the high-end of its retail value, that is, what it might take to replace the object with something better. A good rule of thumb is to double the value at which you bought the item. While many examples by Melchers don’t’ possess the prestige that the Fraad name can give, it probably wouldn’t hurt to ask your insurance company to reevaluate, even if all it accomplishes is to make you feel better.

There’s nothing like the power of money. While the 1990 Melchers retrospective exhibition renewed interest in Gari Melchers, enthusiasm eventually faded. Sotheby’s million dollar price tag just might have accorded Melchers the most significant and enduring boost yet towards restoring his repetition to what it once was.

Addendum: Today the accepted title for the portrait is The Embroideress, and it is owned by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

 

 

 

Melchers Here, There and Just About Everywhere

I subscribe to the theory of six points of separation, the idea that each person is connected to anyone else in the world by no more than six other intermediaries, at least where Gari Melchers is concerned.  If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they had discovered a Melchers connection on a far-a-way trip, in an obscure book, or in a chance meeting with a Melchers relative or former model, I’d probably have to invest in a larger hand bag!  And not surprisingly, because the artist resided in Virginia the last 16 years of his life, the state is lousy with links to Melchers, not to mention Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

Coolidge and Son, Mrs.

 

I recently sent a colleague searching for Melchers in the foyer of the 500-seat Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress.  On display there is a double portrait Melchers painted of the woman who funded its construction in 1925, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and her four year old son Sprague. Her gift was accompanied by the establishment of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation to organize concerts there and to commission new chamber music from both European and American composers, as it continues to do today. Melchers painted the portrait of Coolidge years earlier, in 1902. John Singer Sargent painted a watercolor of Coolidge in 1921, which also hangs in the foyer, though not at the moment.

No one remembers much about Mrs. Coolidge today, but she was once a “big bug,” as Melchers used to say.  Liz Coolidge was an American pianist and patron of music. She was raised in Chicago where her father, Albert Arnold Sprague, made a fortune as a wholesale dealer.  Melchers painted Sprague and his wife around the time that he painted their daughter. (In fact, Melchers was quite busy in that city with a long list of clients with recognizable names like Armour, Field and Palmer.)  At his death, Sprague left his only daughter quite wealthy.  Coolidge decided to spend her fortune on the promotion of chamber music, which was at the time overshadowed by the popularity of orchestral music. It was a mission she continued to carry out until her death at the age of 89. On account of her husband’s profession, she also gave financial support to medical institutions, and she funded the Bank Street College of Education in New York, founded by her cousin.

 

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Coolidge was widowed early in her married life and she enjoyed a very close relationship with her only son Sprague, as evidenced by their intimacy in the Melchers portrait.  Melchers experimented with the layout of the design, as can be seen in the related sketches in the collection at GMHS, but the final version beautifully expresses the child as a dominant force in Liz Coolidge’s life.

Not many steps away my colleague encountered the decorative murals Melchers produced in 1895 for the North Pavilion of the Library of Congress, entitled War and Peace. Across the mall and through the doors of at least three other museums one can find further evidence of Melchers’ long cultural reach.

Peace Mural, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Peace and War Murals, 1895, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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No Smoking!

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I love this late 1920s candid shot of Gari Melchers posing with his masterpiece The Smithy. The identity of the exhibition and hosting institution is unclear, but it sure does look like something has caught the master’s undivided attention. Do you suppose it is a “No Smoking” sign? Please come by to see the impressive painting, now on loan from the Ross Family collection, through September 4, 2017.  And leave your smokes outside!

“Spotlight” on a Melchers Masterpiece

smithy-the-with-frameLong before the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.  finally closed its doors in 2014 it was already divesting itself of paintings. One important example which had come to them through the renowned collector Duncan Phillips was The Smithy, painted around 1898 by Gari Melchers. It earned Melchers some of his greatest critical praise, admired most for its sense of actuality in remarks like “[The Smithy] is very strong, very human, and of lively intent. Directly painted, it has almost primitive qualities of truth, simplicity and deep earnestness,” and “Mr. Melchers is a favorite because of his healthy brushwork, robust vision and feeling for the human side of his themes,” and finally “This is one of his great  pictures.”  What artist wouldn’t envy tributes like that?

When The Smithy was acquired by a private collector in 2008 from Christie’s, I asked the auction house to pass on my “To whom” letter of inquiry, asking the new owner to consider contacting me in the hope that we wouldn’t lose track of the important canvas. Not only was I contacted, but I made friends with one of Melchers’ most enthusiastic fans ever! Immediately we began talking about a loan to Belmont. The Ross family agreed to lend the picture as our signature spotlight exhibition piece for summer 2017. What museum wouldn’t envy generous patronage like that?

The Smithy has arrived and has been installed in the company of preparatory and related works from the collection at Gari Melchers Home and Studio.  Come and see a classic Melchers appearing for the first time ever at the artist’s last studio retreat!

View the Gallery Guide

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly

 

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Pipevine swallowtail on Monarda

The Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor, is a beautiful butterfly that has an upper surface of iridescent blue or blue-green on its hind-wing.  The underside of the hind-wing has a row of 7 round orange spots in an iridescent blue field.

Aristolochia macrophylla – commonly known as Dutchman’s Pipe, is native to the eastern United States and is the primary food for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.

The vine gets its name from the small pipe-like flowers that hide in the dense foliage.

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Pipe-like flowers

 

The beautiful heart shaped leaves grow on old wood, and when the vine is established it will cover a structure providing dense shade.

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Vine growing on Pavilion

It grows at Belmont on the arbor by the Pavilion where the “pipes” and the larva are easily viewed.

The adults feed on flowers like Beebalm, Monarda sp., Phlox, Phlox paniculata, and plants in the Verbenaceae family, such as Verbena, Lantana and Purpletop Vervain, all which are abundant in our gardens and native grass fields.

 

 

 

The egg masses have not been spotted on thee vines yet this year, but we are keeping a watch and will report any

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Caterpillar on Pipevine plant summer of 201

sightings to  Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA). This organization has undertaken an ambitious effort to collect, store, and share butterfly species information and occurrence data. You can participate by taking and submitting photographs of butterflies, moths, and caterpillars. 

 

Follow this link to get more information about BAMONA and the work they do: https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/

Below is a link to a short video that explains the importance of the Pipevine plant to the survival of this gorgeous butterfly.

https://www.facebook.com/HuffPostUK/videos/1170131156387948/

A Village Gateway Steeped in History

Belmont and fieldVisitors who venture up the sidewalk from Falmouth to Belmont find themselves entering our property at the corner of Ingleside Drive and Washington Street, next to the wildlife habitat field in front of the main house. Standing at this vantage point one can understand why someone long ago named the property Belmont. Deriving from the French “belle” – fair, lovely, with “mont” – a hill or mountain, the name indicates a place that is beautifully situated on a hill. The house is certainly a beautiful sight to see, perched on the little “mont” above Falmouth. The first known reference to the estate as “Belmont” was in 1823 when the property was listed in a Virginia Herald advertisement reading in part:

“The healthiness of this beautiful spot, commanding an extensive view of Falmouth, Fredericksburg and the surrounding country; its contiguity to the best society and good schools, makes it a most desirable residence.”

The description is just as valid today as when it was written almost two hundred years ago; we still enjoy a commanding view from our little hill and the property is a beautiful spot to take a healthful walk in our gardens and along our trails.

At the time of the Virginia Herald advertisement, however, the land in front of Belmont along Ingleside Drive was not part of the estate. The house and lot covered just one acre, as the original lot was a narrow strip of land on either side of the house that ran from Washington Street to about mid-way down the current lawn. Joseph B. Ficklen purchased Belmont around 1825 and in 1828 he started expanding his estate by purchasing the land where our visitor center, stable, and smoke house are located today. In 1831 he purchased the lot in front of Belmont, which at that time contained a building identified in an 1874 document as a “Store and Warehouse.”

“…that said Store and Warehouse were for very many years used by the testator (Joseph B. Ficklen) as his place of business, in which he carried on a very large Mercantile business, sometimes on his own account, and again with one or another of his Nephews as a partner…”

Store

The windowless wall allowed for long shelves to display wares.

The construction date of the “Store and Warehouse” is not known, but photographs dating to the 1960’s reveal the classic form of early stores: long walls with windows only at the back to give light to a heated office space accommodated shelves, and a deep cellar below was used for storage. When built, the road bed was much higher, and the store-front faced what is known today as Washington Street.

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Note the substantial chimney.

The building was already on the property when Ficklen purchased the land in 1831, and he used it as a base to run a “Mercantile” (a general store or some other kind of commercial trade) business with his nephew. He dissolved his partnership with his nephew in 1851, a few years after his 1847 marriage to Anna Eliza Fitzhugh.

That union spurred him to expand his house by adding two rooms downstairs and upstairs on the southern side of his house, and making extensive changes to the garden, also described in the same document quoted above:“…said Warehouse was turned into a carriage house, in which the Testator kept his carriage – and said Store house was used as a general lumber room and store-room for supplies for the use of the Bellmont family …, that said lot is situated immediately in front of the Bellmont house & …– that it is now and has been for many year under the same enclosure with said house and grounds…– that a very large part, if not the whole, of said lot was used by the Testator for family purposes, being cultivated as a garden and planted with fruit trees, …it was also connected with the house.”

1807 MAP detail

1807 Mutual Assurance Policy sketch showing location of smoke house and kitchen just south of the main building. Location of Long Walk and stairs are approximate.

The changes to the garden were partly dictated by the expansion of the house. The addition created a center hall plan with porches on either end. On the side towards Falmouth, the porch sits at the top of a terrace with a horse shoe shaped stair that goes down a short “fall”, or slope, to the “Long Walk,” the boxwood lined path that runs along the top of the hill. To create the slope, Ficklen moved the kitchen and smoke house from their original location just south of the house, as seen in this Mutual Assurance drawing dated 1807, to their location today on the west side of the house.

On one end the Long Walk terminates at top of the stairs that lead to Falmouth. They are likely the “connection with the house” mentioned above, and we estimate that the stairs date to circa 1850, the period when the house and gardens were expanded and improved. The stairs are bordered with lilacs and old cedars that could both date to the period before the Civil War. The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is a long-lived plant that is bothered by the lilac borer in our region. The borer will kill off the larger stems which cause suckering thus creating a cycle of new shoots that mature and bloom, and then face death by the borer. Union General John Gibbon became friends of the Ficklen family during the spring of 1862. He stayed at the house as did his wife and son when they came for a visit and stayed with the Ficklen family. Their time at Belmont was a much cherished memory for Gibbon. He wrote to his wife in July of the same year saying: “I[I] miss you so much when I could no longer walk up the lilac walk at Mr. Ficklen’s with the expectation of meeting you or seeing John’s bright eyes peering out thro’ the bushes, the lookout for his dad.”

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Gari changed the “store and warehouse” into a studio. Photograph taken circa 1920.

Gari and Corinne Melchers renovated and added onto the Store and Warehouse building on the corner of Ingleside Drive and Washington Street, turning it into a studio. They added a stone clad porch on the side towards Belmont as seen in this photograph taken just after completion of the work. At the foot of the stairs they added the gate, walls, and fence.

 

 

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Gari and Corinne Melchers with dog in front of Belmont’s lower gate, circa 1920.

The cast iron fence and gate were purchased from Smithsonia in downtown Fredericksburg. Read the story about the fence and gate here: https://garimelchers.wordpress.com/page/3/.

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Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston circa 1928.

The stairs are quite steep, and the Melchers built a rustic cedar hand-rail captured in a photograph taken by famous photographer Frances BenjaminJohnston in the 1920s.

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Detail of rustic hand-rail.

Our grounds crew, Dave Ludeker and Daniel Carter, installed a replica of the handrail this winter. We are pleased that Belmont guests can once again walk these old stairs, enjoying safe passage to our wildlife meadow in front of the house or a stroll to and from the historic village of Falmouth. Come walk the historic steps, smell the lilacs, enjoy our gardens and grounds and tour our historic house and studio.

3-D Printing Brings Art to Life

Ever since reading this History Made New article in UVAToday, I’ve been determined to offer full scale 3-D printed replicas at Gari Melchers Home and Studio. And, this week, it became a reality!

Many thanks to University of Virginia Library information visualization specialist Will Rourk who traveled to Fredericksburg with all his gear to scan our artifacts and to Dwight Dart of the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Rapid Prototyping Lab for printing the finished pieces.

Julius Melchers (1829-1908), Gari’s father, was a sculptor and his son’s first art teacher. I chose Julius’ carved wooden busts to be scanned because they are so intricate and three dimensional.

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The original carved busts are shown with their 3-D printed counterparts.

On the left is Margarethe, 1893, which is probably a portrait of Melchers’ granddaughter Marguerite, born in 1889 to Julius and Hedwig Melchers Stroh.  Bacchus, sculpted by Julius Melchers in 1892, depicts the Roman god of wine.

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Gari Melchers, by Paul Manship, plaster, 1932

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Portrait of Paul Manship by Gari Melchers, 1932

I selected the plaster bas-relief of Gari Melchers, executed in 1932 by sculptor Paul Manship, because I thought it would give the blind and visually impaired children who attend our annual Beeping Egg Hunt an excellent way to tactilely discover what Gari Melchers looked like.

Manship and Melchers were friends and members of the New Society of Artists in New York City. Their friendship resulted in Manship’s portrait of Gari and an oil sketch of the sculptor by Melchers in the same year. Historians believe the artists exchanged the two works as gifts.

Most of the artifacts that our guests see cannot be touched or handled. So, I plan to incorporate these plastic facsimiles into all areas of the museum’s educational programming to expand the sensory experiences our guests can enjoy and gain new ways to appreciate art.

I can’t wait!