MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont opening day Oct. 19 1975 Director Dick Reid sitting

Forty Years on the Hill

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont on opening day Oct. 19 1975. Director Dick Reid is sitting.

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont’s opening day on Oct. 19, 1975. Director Dick Reid is sitting.

On October 19, 1975, Mary Washington College President Prince Woodard presided over the public opening of the Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery, making the artist’s Belmont home and painting studio available to the public on a regular schedule for the first time.

The opening of the museum took over twenty years to accomplish, in the face of numerous governance decisions by the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Virginia and finally Mary Washington College, all of which had involvement in the winding road of acceptance and implementation of Corinne Melchers’ wishes as outlined in her 1942 gift to the Commonwealth, which was effective at her death in 1955.

Gari and Corinne Melchers purchased Belmont in 1916, finding a pleasant country retreat similar to what they had enjoyed for many years in Egmond, Holland, where Gari was able to concentrate on his work away from the distractions of Paris, where his professional life was centered. After leaving Europe during the turmoil of the war years, Gari established a studio in New York City, but again longed for a rural retreat that he found at Belmont.

During his sixteen years in Virginia, Gari Melchers involved himself in the cultural life of his adopted state, eventually being named chair of the Virginia Arts Commission in 1932. From that post he oversaw the refurbishment of the state capitol building decorations and statuary, and began the development of what was to become the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After his death later that year, Corinne was appointed to his position on the commission and became one of the founding trustees of the VMFA when it opened in 1935. She had developed a close relationship with Thomas Colt, the museum’s first curator and director, and spurred by a VMFA memorial exhibition of Gari’s work in 1938, by 1942 had worked out a plan to deed Belmont and its collections to the museum at her death.

By the time of Corinne’s passing in 1955, and the subsequent transfer of the property and art collections to the Commonwealth, the administration of the VMFA and the reputation of Gari Melchers in art circles had changed considerably. No longer was Melchers considered an important American artist, and his Falmouth home had become run down and in need of major repairs. The VMFA board almost immediately sought to be relieved of the burden of supporting what they saw as a white elephant fifty miles from Richmond. Fredericksburg’s Mary Washington College, then part of the University of Virginia, was approached and accepted the responsibility for overseeing the site, but could not provide funding for either staff or major improvements that would allow public use. It was not until 1975, under a new college administration that was committed to opening the site as a public museum, that Corinne’s wishes were finally carried out.

Since that autumn day forty years ago, the museum now known as Gari Melchers Home and Studio has kept alive Mrs. Melchers’ goal of preserving and celebrating the now revived artistic legacy of her accomplished husband, and providing a public setting in which to enjoy his art and the historic locale that they so lovingly maintained.

In the early years under Belmont’s first director, Richard Reid, only the first floor of the house and the studio were open a few days a week, staffed by volunteers. In 1984, under the guidance of Reid, an important illustrated reference book, Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection, was published by MWC professor Joseph Dreiss. By the mid-1980s hours had expanded to seven days a week, and Reid’s successor Peter Grover leveraged state and private funds to restore the original house and modernize the utilities to both preserve the collections and increase the comfort of visitors. It was at this time that a major retrospective exhibition of Gari Melchers’ best work traveled the country, reviving public and critical interest in his place in American painting.

In the early 90s, under current director David Berreth, the formal gardens were restored with the help of the Garden Club of Virginia, which has continued to support the restoration of the estate’s landscape based on the voluminous photographs and records saved by Mrs. Melchers. In 1995 a former garage was converted into a visitor center and museum shop to welcome guests and increase revenues. The building now also serves as the official Stafford County Visitor Center, promoting regional tourism and the study of local history.

By 2001 the original studio building was fully restored to provide a safe, climate controlled facility in which to house a rotating display over 500 works by Gari Melchers. This thoroughly professional venue allows the museum to borrow major works and exhibitions from other museums around the country. And in 2006 a new public event pavilion and collection storage facility was completed, allowing the museum to host a wide variety of public educational programs, concerts, and workshops, along with private events like wedding receptions and business retreats. All of this work was accomplished through combinations of private and state funding, which demonstrated the depth of support from the now University of Mary Washington, and a cadre of local donors and private foundations focused on historic preservation.

Today, Gari Melchers Home and Studio hosts visitors from every corner of the world, and is a regular stop for local residents and regional guests. Corinne Melchers’ dream has been realized, and we celebrate her vision and dedication to art and its ability to endure and inspire, as it has for over forty years on the hill overlooking Falmouth.


Puzzler of a Painting No More!

Dutch Bachelor at His Breakfast

Dutch Bachelor at His Breakfast

I’m delighted to provide an update to my earlier post Another Conundrum of Connoisseurship! regarding a painting, Dutch Bachelor at His Breakfast, sent to me for inspection this past June.  An art collector sent me a watercolor to examine, at that time untitled.  I‘d never laid eyes on the painting before, but it has all the hallmarks of an early Melchers.  What perplexed me was the signature it bears: “ J. G. Melches.”  Not only is it missing the “r”, but it bears no resemblance to Melchers’ bona fide autograph.

Why would a genuine Melchers have a “bad” signature?  Occasionally Melchers failed to sign his works. If this was the case with Dutch Bachelor, did someone later forge the signature to eliminate doubt?  Well that backfired!  The inconsistency of an artist’s known signature always casts doubt on a piece.

There was still another possibility to consider.   Despite the attempt at a Melchers signature, the picture could easily pass as the work of Melchers’ American colleague in Holland, George Hitchcock, of which Belmont has several examples.

Admittedly, I was stymied. Certainly it had to be by one or the other artist, for the setting of the painting was the studio the two shared in Holland, but their subjects and styles were so interchangeable at this stage of their careers that I wasn’t sure I could ever reach a proof positive attribution.

The watercolor is such a charming evocation of “old Holland” that its owner thought it would be best appreciated in a museum in the Netherlands.  When the various parties showed no interest in the piece, perhaps put off by the spurious signature, the owner offered it to Belmont, if for no other reason than to serve as a study piece! We accepted with gratitude.  Now I was really motivated to nail down the attribution!

Happily, that day came this week when I followed a lead to an article published in an obscure journal dating to 1885, The Art Amateur.  It was too much to hope for, but buried in an extensive review of an American Watercolor Society exhibition was a description of the very same painting I had sitting on my desk!

It reads:

We point, in illustration, to “A Dutch Bachelor’s Breakfast” (686), by J. G. Melchers, an exceedingly clever Hollander. . . .  Pure wash is the rule. Wherever the white of the paper will serve a useful purpose it is retained. Notice the masterly way in which it is made to do service in giving the light to the tea-cup the bachelor holds in his hand. What substance there is in the figure of the picturesquely attired servant girl who is doing the offices of the breakfast-table; how well balanced in color and composition is the entire picture!

With that came the solution to the mystery and a valuable addition to our collection!  As for the signature, it’s certainly a deliberate forgery.

Town Talk
We have pollinators following our harvest trailer around the farm! Harvest buckets of zinnias with a swallowtail butterfly left and a hummingbird moth on right.

Grow Great Spring Flowers and Pollinators Will Come!

Spring blooming Scabiosa will attract bees from the get go of the season. Scabiosa Blue Cockade.

Spring blooming Scabiosa will attract bees from the get go of the season. Scabiosa Blue Cockade.

Spring blooming flowers are about so much more than just gorgeous flowers.  Those featured in my book Cool Flowers are spring bloomers, but they also offer a big hand-up to pollinators and other beneficial insects that are eager in spring for habitat and food. So, not only are these some of the most beloved spring bloomers to enjoy – but they roll out the welcome mat to the good guys that will impact your entire growing season for the good.

I didn’t set out to fill my farm with pollinators and other beneficial insects. You might say it has been a side effect of all-natural cut-flower farming.

As simple as it sounds, it’s true. Just plant flowers. Don’t use pesticides–organic or otherwise. Soon a wave of these guys will overrun your garden.

As my awareness of beneficial insects has grown, I find that it is getting easier to farm. It has become my second nature to consider and provide a place for them to live, eat, and raise a family year round. This practice is not only the right thing to do for the future of all, but it totally impacts my business bottom line for the good.

We have pollinators following our harvest trailer around the farm! Harvest buckets of zinnias with a swallowtail butterfly left and a hummingbird moth on right.

We have pollinators following our harvest trailer around the farm! Harvest buckets of zinnias with a swallowtail butterfly left and a hummingbird moth on right.

This little-known community of good bugs is as diverse a mix as the population of NYC. And don’t underestimate their entertainment value either. A fairly common comment directed at me on our farm:  “Are we harvesting flowers today or are we taking photos of bugs?” There is a reason they make movies about bugs — they are fascinating!

How to attract them? Provide flowers from the first crack of spring and throughout the season until frost. It’s those early spring blooms that really kick-start our insect population. Bachelor buttons and calendula are two of the heavy hitters in our gardens. They bloom in spring when the nights are still chilly but the days are warm. Their foliage secretes nectar even before the flowers bloom, making them a great favorite of hungry bugs.

Fall blooming flowers will keep the garden full of pollinators until winter arrives. Left Salvia Leucantha, right Salvia Mexicana.

Fall blooming flowers will keep the garden full of pollinators until winter arrives. Left Salvia Leucantha, right Salvia Mexicana.

Pleasing the pollinators requires providing a continuous supply of flowers throughout the growing season. This fits perfectly with my flower farming because my customers want the same thing! Monthly succession planting fits the bill for us.

To reap the benefit of these guys as pollinators and pest control, you must resist the urge to treat a possible problem that may pop up in your garden. Be patient and do not be afraid of some pest damage. To keep your community of good guys home and fed, they have to have some bad bugs to eat, right? Give them time to do their job.

Planting flowers in the garden with your vegetables with ensure pollination. Celosia plume with a bumblebee.

Planting flowers in the garden with your vegetables with ensure pollination. Celosia plume with a bumblebee.

It is my opinion that if you have a 10-row vegetable garden, you should also have 2 rows of flowers to support them. I won’t get on my wagon here about the vegetable gardens I visit. There are some that don’t have a flower in sight, while the gardener complains of a lack of bees for pollinating. It couldn’t be more simple: plant flowers and they will come.

To learn how to supply your garden with beauty and a vast population of pollinators and other beneficial insects, attend my program Growing Great Spring Flowers that will be held at Belmont Sunday, November 1 at 2pm.  I will share what to grow, starting it from seed, best planting times, how to set up your garden for low maintenance and how to keep the blooms coming!

Perhaps spring is the most anticipated season of the year– yours can be full of abundance and beauty as featured in my book Cool Flowers.

A Pop-up Shop will follow the program offering seeds, tools and supplies for sale.

Lisa Mason Ziegler is a commercial cut-flower farmer in Newport News, Virginia; she lectures and writes about organic and sustainable gardening. You can email Lisa at , call her at 757-877-7159 or visit her website

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Julius Melchers' 'Captain Jack'

Julius Melchers and Figurecarving in 19th Century America

Julius Melchers' 'Captain Jack,' now on display at Gari Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont

Julius Melchers’ ‘Captain Jack,’ now on display at Gari Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont

In 1886, a New York journalist noted that, “Few objects, policemen and lampposts excepted, are more familiar to the public than the cigar store wooden Indian.” To his readers, particularly those living in cities along the East Coast and in the Midwest, this was stating the obvious. Countless numbers of wooden figures were carved in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most served as ship figureheads or shop signs, but they were used for many other purposes as well, including as architectural elements, garden statuary, and commemorative figures for parades and civic ceremonies.

During the more than four decades that Julius Theodore Melchers, father of Gari, operated a workshop in Detroit, he created all of these types of figures and more. Born in 1829 in Soest, Westphalia, Prussia, he was a sculptor and craftsman of the old school, who trained in the traditional German workshop system and then in Paris. He settled in Detroit in the mid-1850s, where he at first found his opportunities somewhat limited, but eventually adapted to his new environment and made many important contributions to Detroit’s emerging artistic community.

Melchers created many outstanding shop and cigar store figures during his long career, but the vast majority of them were done by shipcarvers, the men responsible for making figureheads and other types of ship decorations. A tightly knit group of professional carvers bound by family ties and master-apprentice relationships, they operated through a network of workshops in port cities and towns along the East Coast and, to a lesser extent, the Great Lakes.

The figurehead tradition had descended from antiquity, and continued to be popular until the end of the era of wooden-hulled sailing ships in the late nineteenth century. As for shop figures, the earliest examples in both Europe and America were usually either about half-lifesize or were designed to be small enough to place on counters in the interior of stores. During the decade of the 1840s, a new, larger figure emerged in the United States that came to be known as a show figure. By merging the tradition of full-size figureheads with that of the generally smaller shop figures, the carvers created an imposing sculptural form that was readily adaptable to the rapidly expanding and increasingly competitive American business environment.

Many of the most innovative developments came from New York City, which was the leading shipbuilding center in the United States from about 1820 until after the Civil War. Naturally enough, the city supported an active group of shipcarvers. Even so, they were never very numerous, as their work required great skill and a long apprenticeship, but paid very little. In the 1880s, a carver told a reporter that even at the height of the shipbuilding era in the 1850s, there were never more than a dozen master carvers in New York at any one time, and that at that moment there were no more than six. Over the course of three generations, most of these men worked in a similar style, and aided by a good number of apprentices, they produced thousands upon thousands of figures.

Fanciful images of Native Americans were by far the most popular, but especially after about 1860, any character that caught the public’s imagination could and would be skillfully personified, from the more traditional Turks and Scotsmen to up-to-date baseball players and fashionable women. As Melchers once noted,

I carved all sorts of Indians. Big Indians, little Indians, chiefs, and Indian queens. Sometimes the images represented real characters but they were oftener ideal figures. I made Blackhawks, Pontiacs, Hiawathas and Pocahontases.

… Sometimes a cigar dealer wanted a classical figure instead of an Indian. We carved several of them, with slight variations to indicate the cigar business. A statue of Pomona with a handful of cigars instead of apples, or Ceres, holding a bunch of tobacco leaves, instead of wheat, was a striking sign, and indicated classical proclivities on the part of the proprietor. Sometimes a patriotic fellow wanted a Goddess of Liberty or Uncle Sam. I have made several Bother Jonathans for customers with strong Yankee sentiments.

As products of a shared cultural and artistic imagination, figureheads and cigar store figures speak volumes about several important aspects of American social history, including racial and gender stereotyping, and the emergence of a national popular culture. Based on contemporary perceptions, they resonate with meaning, embodying traditional values while at the same time reflecting the attitudes, prejudices and trends of a rapidly developing society.

5 Things You Missed If You Didn’t Attend #BelmontArtAfterHours

1. Free admission to a live concert by The Acoustic Onion
2. Free admission to the Studio
3. Stafford County’s Adventure Brewing Co.
4. Stafford County’s Potomac Point Vineyard & Winery
5. UFO food truck

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We had our first ever Art after Hours here at Gari Melchers Home and Studio on September 24 and it was a major success! The perfect fall weather mixed with great music, delicious food, local beer and wine, made for a wonderful evening. We had the band set up on the lawn right in front of the sunroom doors, the food truck was parked inside the gates across from the house, and the winery and brewery had tents set up on the back of the lawn. Our guests were able to enjoy the beautiful evening surrounded by Belmont’s charming gardens and the Rappahannock River.

The Entertainment
The Acoustic Onion, a local four member band known for their unique interpretation of 60’s and 70’s hits, entertained a crowd of over 100. They have built a diverse fan base on the strength of their energetic old school rock and roll, and some guests even brought their dancing shoes and grooved on the lawn! Many also brought lawn chairs and blankets to relax on the grass and listen to the far-out tunes.

Guests were able to stroll through the Studio and galleries after hours; many told me they had never been here before. I had some friends come to the event and was tickled by how truly interested they were while walking through the Studio. Some, who hadn’t visited Belmont since their youth, were able to reconnect with and appreciate the museum in a new way. I think this event allowed young adults to learn about Gari Melchers, appreciate Fredericksburg’s rich history, and hopefully look forward to future events here!

Beer and Wine
The beer and wine came from Stafford County’s own Adventure Brewing Co. and Potomac Point Winery. I was lucky enough to meet with Stan, one of the owners of Adventure Brewing, and he let me taste a few of their delicious beers. When I tasted their Pumpkin Patch Ale, I immediately knew it would be perfect for this event. It just put me in the fall spirit. They also served their most popular brew, Expedition IPA. Potomac Point Winery brought two whites and two reds to give our guests a nice variety. If you haven’t checked out these two local businesses, you really should.

Who doesn’t love a good food truck? I thought that it would be the perfect dinner option for our first Art after Hours! The UFO food truck sold their ultimate sliders and fusion tacos inspired by classic sandwiches such as the Reuben, Fish Sandwich, and Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. I ordered the Big Foot Barbeque Tacos which has Pulled Pork topped with Sweet Thai Chili Sauce, they were delicious. The Folks at UFO take these tried and true items and elevate them to create “out of this world” food. Everything that I tried, which happened to be quite a bit because I nibbled on all my friends choices, too, was SO GOOD. We even talked about becoming UFO groupies and following them around town so we can taste it all!

The event was a huge success and left guests asking when we are having our next Art after Hours. I had a few conversations with people who had never been to Belmont about how, when we grow up somewhere, we don’t always pay attention to the historic hidden gems. I think this event allowed a younger generation to experience Belmont and others to see it in another light. We plan on hosting another one in the spring, so don’t miss it!