UPDATE: “Puzzler of a Painting no More”
Recently a gentleman from the Netherlands asked me to look at an untitled watercolor he purchased from a gallery in Maine. Clearly the subject of the painting is Dutch. In a humble kitchen interior a costumed woman attends the table of a man who stretches his stocking feet before an open fire. An accomplished and insightful bit of old-world charm, to be sure, but the gallery couldn’t make out the signature of the creator, and without a reliable attribution, a dealer can’t always realize the best price, so the picture was had for a song. The sharp-eyed purchaser thought the signature looked a lot like “Melchers,” which is what led him to me.
At first glance the resemblance of the image to Gari Melchers’ early body of work in Holland, even to George Hitchcock, Melchers’ American colleague in Holland, was striking, but the signature, “J. G. Melches” not only misspelled the artist’s name, it was in no way consistent with the manner in which Melchers signed his pieces.
Did someone else forge the signature, seeing the strong affinity with Melchers, but knowing that a signed example pays better than an unsigned? I think this is the most likely explanation, but unfortunately, whether the watercolor is by Melchers or not, adding the unschooled signature had the opposite result in that it only casts a spurious shadow over any attribution.
Moreover, it is doubly difficult to assign an attribution to the 14 x 24 inch watercolor because a whole group of international painters was working in this same style in Holland in the early 1880s. For instance, the watercolor might be taken for the work of any number of native Hague School painters, with its primitive Dutch interior and blue/grey palette. Then again it could be the work of other Americans working in Holland, like Walter MacEwen, George Boughton, or Edwin Austen Abbey.
On the other hand, there are a few things that have led me to narrow down my attribution to either Melchers or Hitchcock. One very obvious factor is the interior setting. I recognize it as the Egmond, Holland, studio shared by Gari Melchers and George Hitchcock- with its beamed ceiling, fireplace, the distinctive profile of the mantle and the configuration of the room- the fact that the mantle is backlit by a window just out of view to the far right of the composition.
This room is the very same setting for Gari Melchers’ Last Supper series, Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus and his Old and Young (with a few minor differences to allow for artistic license). And because Melchers shared this studio with Hitchcock, it’s not surprising to see that Hitchcock sketched details of the same setting for an article he authored and illustrated for Scribner’s in 1898, entitled “The Picturesque Quality of Holland: Interiors and Bric-a-brac.” The caption Hitchcock provided for that sketch is “Fireplace in a Dutch Studio.” I’m betting that studio was the one he shared with Melchers and which serves as the backdrop for the watercolor in question.
Early in their careers, Melchers and Hitchcock were attracted to many of the same subjects, one of which was the homey peasant interiors traditionally favored by the Old Dutch Masters. The topic was a lucrative one in the burgeoning industrial age, when nostalgia for a pre-modern culture was the rage among art collectors. By a comparison of their images, it becomes clear that Melchers and Hitchcock were not only seeking out similar themes, they were even sitting down together to record the same people and villages surrounding their studio, with the unhappy result being that if they didn’t trouble themselves to sign every picture, they were sometimes too similar in style and subject to tell each artist apart. This is what we have here. The watercolor could be from George’s hand or Gari’s.
Here’s something else that makes it difficult to assign the piece to Melchers; two pieces of furniture in the mystery watercolor are similar to pieces reproduced by Hitchcock- a very similar chair appears in a sketch he produced of his studio for the magazine, Art Amateur in 1890, and the trestle table is similar, if not identical, to one he depicted in another sketch for the Scribners article.
Further complicating the attribution is the strong kinship the watercolor has with George Hitchcock’s Kitchen Madonna, here at Belmont, but it also resembles in style and subject Melchers’ Polishing a Tray, Peasant Girl and Grandfather and Baby. I don’t know if I can narrow it down to one artist over the other until I find more concrete evidence.
Meanwhile, the owner has generously agreed to lend Belmont the painting for exhibition in order for our audiences to admire it, examine it and state their own case for or against Gari Melchers.