Theodore Roosevelt’s Portrait by Gari Melchers

Roosevelt ArticleAn article that appears in the most recent issue of the White House History Quarterly takes a deep dive into 1909 when Charles Lang Freer commissioned American artist Gari Melchers to paint President Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait.  The author does a nice job putting this event into a broader context and cites education and communications manager Michelle Crow-Dolby’s blog post “Painting a President” for details that provide important insight into the artist’s experience.

 

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A Conversation Piece Elicits Conversation

I am happy to report that a long-neglected portrait in the Belmont collection is about to have its day in the sun. Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy has just returned from conservation and it’s a beauty. I have always considered it well painted, but because it was marred by paint loss and a disfiguring scratch, I thought it best to install it over a bedroom fireplace, well away from the discerning eyes of our guests. Consequently, no one has ever been able to appreciate what a fine little portrait it is.  It has been hard to give it its due because Gari and Corinne Melchers left us no clue as to the identities of the subjects and what, if any, personal significance the sitters may have had to the couple. It would be useful to know how the picture came into their possession, but that also remains a mystery.

Bel 1888 after conserv

R. V. ?, Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy, circa 1800-1810, oil on panel.                                    Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Represented in our charming double portrait is a little boy with carrot-colored hair and a mature lady whom I assume to be his grandmother. They come to us from a bygone era, she in a fashionable empire gown and mob cap and he in tiny pointed slippers and what is probably his first pair of trousers, still fitted with a drop seat for “easy access.”

The painting is a classic example of a type of portraiture referred to as a conversation piece. The conversation piece is defined as a relatively small painting – ours is 20 x 16 inches – reproducing an informal scene of a family group or a circle of friends within an intimate interior, the intention of which is to reproduce likenesses and extoll the comfort and virtues of domestic life. The genre probably stems from the 17th-century Dutch tradition, but was popularized again in the 18th-century by the neoclassical painter Johan Zoffany, who worked in the court of George III.  Thousands of conversation pieces were painted in the 18th-century, and the figures often are merely “portrait-like,” an attractive child or a fashionable woman, for example, but who are, in fact, only stock types.  We might have to admit that our own portrait pair might be frauds!

Still, I’ve come to regard our subjects with great curiosity and affection. If they did once live, just exactly who are they? Grandmamma is certainly handsome and genteel. She is also house-proud, purposely planting herself in a well-appointed chamber of the family home. Expensive drapes, carpet and wall paper enhance the beauty of the room, and more lovely things are within her reach, such as the pile of engraved prints and an elegant glass-domed clock. Clocks are often featured in conversation pieces as emblems of Time, the regulator of domestic life. Our lady tenderly rests a hand upon what must be her dearest earthly treasure, the cunning little boy who leans familiarly against her lap, directing our gaze to the open book he balances on her knee.

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Their identities may never be solved but we may be closer to unlocking that of the artist, thanks to the assistance of our paintings conservator Perry Hurt and art historians from Colonial Williamsburg and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. When the portrait underwent conservation treatment, Mr. Hurt discovered the remnants of a signature on the rear of the chair seat at the far right. The signature is nearly indecipherable, but we can just make out the first letter, “R,” followed by the letter “V” or “K,” and followed by what could be letters or  numbers.

Bel 1888 signature

I sent photographs of the freshly restored portrait and details of the signature to art historians of 18th and 19th-century European and American painting. The initials led to a dead end, and there was no clear consensus as to the work being an American or French production. They did agree, however, on a dating of approximately 1800-1810, based on the classicizing style of the costumes and French Directoire furnishings. This style also characterizes the work of both Continental and American portrait miniaturists who were active in the United States at the same time. It is worth noting that Mrs. Melchers, a descendant of old Baltimore and Savannah families, inherited several family likenesses dating to this period. It is entirely possible that the portrait of the old lady and boy is yet another family heirloom.

Laura Barry, Juli Grainger Curator of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture at Colonial Williamsburg, gave us our next important lead. Our painting reminded her of another, “L’Optique, by the French artist Louis-Leopold Boilly (1761-1845). Boilly was known for his precisely detailed conversation pieces documenting French middle–class life.

Fred Caxenave after LL Boilly le optique 1800

Boilly’s  L’Optique (The Optical Viewer), dating to about 1793 and shown here in an engraving of the period, follows a similar formula as our portrait, that of a domestic scene in which a woman and child view engravings of famous land- and cityscapes with the aid of a perspectival glass or zograscope. A perspectival glass is an optical device

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comprised of an angled convex lens and reflective mirror used to heighten the illusion of three-dimensionality when viewing prints. Now I don’t mean to suggest that we have a Boilly, but I simply point out here that “R.V.”  whomever that might be, was following in the same tradition as Boilly.

Curiously, Gari and Corinne Melchers, avid art collectors in their own right, collected dozens of these old engraved views, some of which they displayed along their                  staircase where they continue today. It is just possible the couple acquired the                      Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy because of their interest in the engravings. Or did they collect the engravings because it was suggested by the content of the painting?

Boilly’s pictures were criticized in his day for being “too Dutch,” meaning too focused on the sphere of the household in emulation of the Old Master painter Gerard Terborch. Gari Melchers made his career in Holland and early on began to collect old masters. He particularly revered Terborch. It stands to reason, then, why Melchers might seriously consider acquiring an image such as the Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy for his own collection.

I hope to reinstall our mystery portrait in a location that will allow closer inspection, but for the time being, it is in storage awaiting a new frame. The frame that formerly housed the portrait was not the original and was ill-suited in style. Please stay tuned. As soon as it goes up on the wall we will announce it!

 

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Looking to Learn: Learning to Look

Sometimes just slowing down in our fast-paced world can make a considerable difference.  Taking the time to sit down and focus on a single painting in a gallery full of art can help students make considered, thoughtful, and detailed observations.

Our new youth studio program for grades K-6, Looking to Learn:  Learning to Look, does just that.  These gallery activities use Gari Melchers’ art as a gateway to original and personal understanding for students and serves as a companion piece to our Please Touch! historic house tours.

Seated in front of the large-scale Gari Melchers’ painting, In Holland, young learners are encouraged to purposefully observe, digging deeper and deeper, to determine out what’s happening in the painting.  As a group, through their inferences and investigation, they figuratively peel back the layers of paint to reveal the picture’s essence.

Posing as Gari Melchers’ mustachioed model in The Fencer or as a young farm worker wearing a wooden yoke carrying a pair of buckets in In Holland helps participants make personal connections with the artistic process. Artists intentioanlly pose their models to evoke a particular feeling or mood.  By imitating the poses, students can begin to understand more about the art and certainly empathize with the models who had to remain still in their poses for 30 minutes or longer!

Drawing from the depth of our collection, a docent leads a guided group conversation focusing on one of Gari Melchers’ favorite Stafford County models, Annie DeShields. Learners are seated in front of Native of Virginia, as well as its first and second preparatory oil studies.  Careful observation will allow students to discover and point out the changes Melchers made from the first study to the finished painting. Artists are very similar to writers in that they don’t turn in their first “draft.”  They rework and repaint (just as writers rewrite and revise) until they have a final product they are happy with.

Art is fun when you look to learn by learning to look.  Book your field trip today!

Please Touch! Historic House Tours

Keeping historic house tours engaging for visitors can be a challenge, especially children’s tours. The traditional “Listen, don’t touch” guided tour is simply not appealing to youth in today’s digital world.  The authors of the ground-breaking manifesto, the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, are calling for historic sites to create a more visitor-centered paradigm.

I’ve recently re-imagined our house tour for younger audiences.  The new experience engages all five senses and utilizes the Socratic, or inquiry-based, teaching method. I believe these qualities make the tour a dynamic, interactive, and tactile experience.  Students are required to use their critical thinking skills to answer the questions guides pose.

Instead of docents telling students everything we think is important, they now use objects from the education collection, including full scale 3D printed replicas and carefully selected vintage material, as learning prompts.  The prompts are followed up with related archival photographs and a particular set of questions designed to lead students to an idea. Our younger guests become active participants in the tour as opposed to passive recipients of information which is a well-documented way to facilitate retention and promote deeper interest.

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New material gleaned from our archives being shared during the tour include information about the couple’s beloved dogs, Corinne Melchers’ Scarlet Macaw, Polly, and the staff and servants the Melchers’ employed to help run their household, garden, and grounds. Life without the Internet and television is also discussed.

Early feedback, from both teachers and docents, has been positive.  My staff and I look forward to giving our original “Please Touch!” tour to this summer’s field trips and the many engaging conversations along the way.

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A piece of history lost

Belmont lost a piece of history when Bartlett Tree Company took down one of our old cedar trees. The Eastern Redcedar –Juniperus virginiana, was damaged in the high wind event we had earlier in the month. A large section split off from the trunk rendering it unsalvageable.

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The tree pre-dates the period of Gari and Corinne Melchers’ recidency, so we know it was more than one hundred years old when it came down.

A “straight range of trees” was a concept landscape gardener Bernard McMahon, friend of Thomas Jefferson, promoted as “proper” in his 1806 book American Gardener’s Calendar. A “range” of trees means a trees planted in a line, usually along walks and drives to provide shade. Cedar allées were popular in the South and are seen in many old landscapes in the Fredericksburg area.

The cedar that was damaged was part of a line of trees that border the stairs running from the house down to the lower pasture in front of the house. The exact planting date is not known, but some of our cedars could pre-date the Civil War period as seen in this drawing circa 1865.

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Civil War view of cedar trees and decidious trees

The Eastern Redcedar is a long lived tree that grows moderately fast until it reaches maturity after which it maintains its size almost indefinitely. The U.S. Forest service reports that on average, trees aged 26 to 30 years are 18 to 26 feet tall, expressing a growth rate of approximately 7 inches to 1 foot per year. Mature trees aged 50 and older are usually 40 to 50 feet tall though they may reach 120 feet. Thus, growth rates slow considerably after the first 30 years of a specimen’s life. The cedar at Belmont was about 50 feet tall, meaning it had matured and stopped growing in height.

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Circa 1940 view of cedar

The picture above dates to circa 1940, and we can see that the size of the tree is more or less the same as when it was damaged this year. From this we can assume that the tree was fully mature, meaning more than 50 years old, at the time when the photograph was taken. I speculate that Mr. J. B. Ficklen, owner of Belmont from 1824-1874, planted this cedar when he created the stairs to Falmouth, the boxwood lined “Long Walk,” and the horse-shoe shaped stairs in conjunction with expanding his house around 1850. We are leaving the stump in place for now, so bring your magnifying glass and come count the tree rings!

The Bartlett crew took a great panoramic picture from up high in their bucket truck. What a wonderful perspective on Belmont and our old trees.

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Panoramic view of Belmont

9 inspiring artists’ studios you can visit

Via The Spaces

Artists’ studios are unfailingly fascinating, never more so than when left untouched after their passing. While some studios have the good fortune of being lovingly recreated – Brancusi’s Paris atelier was transported from the nondescript Impasse Ronsin to the Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano in 1997 – it’s the ones that remain in their original spots that exert the strongest pull.  MORE…

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Corinne Melchers Featured in ’10 Women Who Influenced Historic Artists’ Homes’

Women artists have historically been trailblazers in their chosen forms, prospering from their considerable talent and perseverance during a time when it was difficult for women to sustain themselves financially at all. Other women, many of whom where underappreciated artists in their own right, have worked tirelessly to preserve the works and homes of those they loved most. See below for a list of 10 women who greatly impacted Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS), and who are receiving much-needed recognition for their many contributions to the world of art.  More…