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.

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