Gari Melchers’ portrait of his beautiful wife entitled La Brabançonne will soon go on view from April 1 through November 2, thanks to a loan by the Annmary Brown Memorial Collection of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. La Brabançonne, or The Girl of Brabant, was painted in 1905 and pictures the artist’s wife of two years posing in a quaint costume loosely representative of South Holland.
“While Melchers lives the costumes of old Holland will not die.” So says a caption that appeared with a reproduction of La Brabançonne in a magazine of the day. And it was true. No American was as synonymous with pictures of Dutch life as was Gari Melchers in 1900. When the age of modernism rushed in, Melchers retreated to rural Holland to capture the last vestiges of a dying way of life, painting the Dutch at work, worship and leisure with an honest and vigorous realism that prompted one biographer to write “You never see in any of Mr. Melchers’ work a touch of drama or a hint of artifice.” And it’s that authentic and wholesome quality that made his subjects so appealing. His approach was no accident. There was a strong American market for pictures that reminded collectors of a simpler time and an agrarian past that honored the virtues of hard work and family values.
Although she was an American, Melchers’ young wife possessed the sturdy good looks of his best Dutch models, and by implication, the virtues as well. Mrs. Melchers poses as if she is on her way out the door, hesitating only long enough to be photographed in her Sunday best, with a flower-festooned lace cap, picturesque cape and hands neatly folded at her waist. A crucifix at her neck identifies her as a Brabançonne of the Catholic South. The family cat brushes up against her skirts to give the picture added domesticity, and to her back a mural depicting a landscape with windmill provides the requisite “Dutchiness” that attracted collectors, the whole resulting in what is at once an icon of pre-modern ideals and a unique image of our memorial’s beloved patroness.