I subscribe to the theory of six points of separation, the idea that each person is connected to anyone else in the world by no more than six other intermediaries, at least where Gari Melchers is concerned. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they had discovered a Melchers connection on a far-a-way trip, in an obscure book, or in a chance meeting with a Melchers relative or former model, I’d probably have to invest in a larger hand bag! And not surprisingly, because the artist resided in Virginia the last 16 years of his life, the state is lousy with links to Melchers, not to mention Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
I recently sent a colleague searching for Melchers in the foyer of the 500-seat Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. On display there is a double portrait Melchers painted of the woman who funded its construction in 1925, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and her four year old son Sprague. Her gift was accompanied by the establishment of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation to organize concerts there and to commission new chamber music from both European and American composers, as it continues to do today. Melchers painted the portrait of Coolidge years earlier, in 1902. John Singer Sargent painted a watercolor of Coolidge in 1921, which also hangs in the foyer, though not at the moment.
No one remembers much about Mrs. Coolidge today, but she was once a “big bug,” as Melchers used to say. Liz Coolidge was an American pianist and patron of music. She was raised in Chicago where her father, Albert Arnold Sprague, made a fortune as a wholesale dealer. Melchers painted Sprague and his wife around the time that he painted their daughter. (In fact, Melchers was quite busy in that city with a long list of clients with recognizable names like Armour, Field and Palmer.) At his death, Sprague left his only daughter quite wealthy. Coolidge decided to spend her fortune on the promotion of chamber music, which was at the time overshadowed by the popularity of orchestral music. It was a mission she continued to carry out until her death at the age of 89. On account of her husband’s profession, she also gave financial support to medical institutions, and she funded the Bank Street College of Education in New York, founded by her cousin.
Coolidge was widowed early in her married life and she enjoyed a very close relationship with her only son Sprague, as evidenced by their intimacy in the Melchers portrait. Melchers experimented with the layout of the design, as can be seen in the related sketches in the collection at GMHS, but the final version beautifully expresses the child as a dominant force in Liz Coolidge’s life.
Not many steps away my colleague encountered the decorative murals Melchers produced in 1895 for the North Pavilion of the Library of Congress, entitled War and Peace. Across the mall and through the doors of at least three other museums one can find further evidence of Melchers’ long cultural reach.