A Blue Chip Painting for Gari Melchers

Reprinted from Sketches, a Newsletter for the Friends of Belmont, Spring/Summer 2005

 

On December 1, 2004, some staggering news from New York may have had Gari Melchers doing flip-flops in his grave; the staff at Belmont certainly met the report with incredulous disbelief. Melchers’ Portrait of Mrs. H had just sold at Sotheby’s for $932,000, nearly 10 times the previous auction record for a work by the painter and well beyond the presale estimate of $80,000 to 120,000 set by Sotheby’s. Even the venerable old auction house, it would appear, was caught off guard.

embroideress, The (2)

The subject of the portrait is Mrs. George Hitchcock, wife of American painter George Hitchcock, a long-time associate of Melchers. Painted in Holland in 1889, the soulful portrait of Mrs. H pictures Mrs. Hitchcock in strict profile, modeling a maternity jacket. In her left hand she holds an embroidery frame, from which the eye follows a fine strand of gold silk to the beautifully rendered fingers of her right hand. An extremely handsome woman in her own right, Melchers’ masterful touch endows Hitchcock’s image with the dramatic power of a Rembrandt. No wonder an early critic described the painting as “arresting.” The canvas earned Melchers some of the best criticism he ever received for portrait work and it must have been a personal favorite, judging by the frequency with which he exhibited it.

But what, exactly, accounts for its recent astronomical sale price? The cachet of ownership. For the past 33 years the portrait was owned by the late Rita and Daniel Fraad, pioneering collectors of American painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Fraad’s was one of the most coveted collections of its kind, with a long list of first-rate paintings collectors long hoped would return to the market.

Last summer, when the Fraad heirs decided to sell the entire collection, 272 lots, a frenzied bidding war over the consignment was waged between auction houses and dealers. Even before Sotheby’s won the consignment, they managed to arrange a separate, private sale of two of the collection’s most prized works, a George Bellows, Shore House and a John Singer Sargent, Venetian Street, for a whopping $35, 000,000. The figure rocked the American art market and stepped up the fevered interest surrounding the upcoming December sale.

The sale of the remaining Fraad collection totaled $65,083,400, the highest ever total for a single-owner sale in this category. As it turns out, the Portrait of Mrs. H went for a rather modest price, if nearly a million dollars can be called that, compared to works that sold by Winslow Homer, members of the Ashcan School and a few others by Sargent. It didn’t hurt either that a photograph of the Melchers portrait as it appeared hanging in the living room of the Fraad’s was prominently reproduced in the catalog of the Sotheby’s sale. Also included was an anecdote that underscores Daniel Fraad’s particular fondness for the Melchers: “Dan was a take no prisoners bidder (once raising his paddle at Sotheby’s and never lowering it until he had successfully purchased the Melchers Portrait of Mrs. H)” in 1972.

The Fraads were extremely selective about which pictures they would allow to be loaned. They agreed to loan the Melchers for the opening of the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980, but would not agree to loan it to the Melchers retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1990. At the Met a critic wrote, “The beauty of the sitter and the accomplished rendering of the subject caused this painting to stand out even in the company of works by well-known artists that were hung on the same wall.”

Even though the Portrait of Mrs. H is the only Melchers to carry the Fraad name, the auction record it achieved raises new interest in the artist, not to mention raising values. In the wake of this blockbuster sale we are likely to see more market activity in Melchers painting, at least for a while. A picture of New York Harbor painted by Melchers around 1906 has just been made available, for instance, by a Palm Beach dealer.

My office is beginning to receive calls from collectors asking whether they need to reappraise the value of their Melchers paintings for insurance purposes. An insurance value is the price set on an object based on the high-end of its retail value, that is, what it might take to replace the object with something better. A good rule of thumb is to double the value at which you bought the item. While many examples by Melchers don’t’ possess the prestige that the Fraad name can give, it probably wouldn’t hurt to ask your insurance company to reevaluate, even if all it accomplishes is to make you feel better.

There’s nothing like the power of money. While the 1990 Melchers retrospective exhibition renewed interest in Gari Melchers, enthusiasm eventually faded. Sotheby’s million dollar price tag just might have accorded Melchers the most significant and enduring boost yet towards restoring his repetition to what it once was.

Addendum: Today the accepted title for the portrait is The Embroideress, and it is owned by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

 

 

 

Melchers Here, There and Just About Everywhere

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.

Coolidge and Son, Mrs.

 

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.

 

Bel 116

 

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.

Peace Mural, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Peace and War Murals, 1895, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

war

No Smoking!

GME5_30

 

I love this late 1920s candid shot of Gari Melchers posing with his masterpiece The Smithy. The identity of the exhibition and hosting institution is unclear, but it sure does look like something has caught the master’s undivided attention. Do you suppose it is a “No Smoking” sign? Please come by to see the impressive painting, now on loan from the Ross Family collection, through September 4, 2017.  And leave your smokes outside!

“Spotlight” on a Melchers Masterpiece

smithy-the-with-frameLong before the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.  finally closed its doors in 2014 it was already divesting itself of paintings. One important example which had come to them through the renowned collector Duncan Phillips was The Smithy, painted around 1898 by Gari Melchers. It earned Melchers some of his greatest critical praise, admired most for its sense of actuality in remarks like “[The Smithy] is very strong, very human, and of lively intent. Directly painted, it has almost primitive qualities of truth, simplicity and deep earnestness,” and “Mr. Melchers is a favorite because of his healthy brushwork, robust vision and feeling for the human side of his themes,” and finally “This is one of his great  pictures.”  What artist wouldn’t envy tributes like that?

When The Smithy was acquired by a private collector in 2008 from Christie’s, I asked the auction house to pass on my “To whom” letter of inquiry, asking the new owner to consider contacting me in the hope that we wouldn’t lose track of the important canvas. Not only was I contacted, but I made friends with one of Melchers’ most enthusiastic fans ever! Immediately we began talking about a loan to Belmont. The Ross family agreed to lend the picture as our signature spotlight exhibition piece for summer 2017. What museum wouldn’t envy generous patronage like that?

The Smithy has arrived and has been installed in the company of preparatory and related works from the collection at Gari Melchers Home and Studio.  Come and see a classic Melchers appearing for the first time ever at the artist’s last studio retreat!

View the Gallery Guide

Melchers’ Tearjerker

 

The 1890s saw the rise of the commercial music industry in the United States.  Sales of sheet music skyrocketed, enabling everyday music lovers to play and sing songs in their own parlors. The song that touched off the sheet music craze was Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball,” the first “platinum” hit in American music history, ultimately selling over five million copies of sheet music. The song was a romantic favorite, a melodramatic evocation of lost love typical of the Gilded Age.  No doubt Gari Melchers learned a few bars of the tune himself while back home for an extended visit in 1883, for he appropriated the song’s title for beautiful little painting he produced that year.

After the Ball

While visiting his parents that year, Melchers was commissioned to paint the first portraits of his professional career. To mark her coming of age, Melchers set about painting the elegant likeness of Detroit beauty, Helen Lothrop Prall. At one point during the course of a painting session with Miss Prall, Melchers must have allowed her to break from her pose and rest in an out-of-the-way corner of the studio. No doubt the artist was so pleased with the effect of his model’s languor that he took up a pen to capture it, and then followed with oils. The result is After the Ball, with its sentimental and slightly melancholy tone suggested by the symbolism of the daisy on which Prall gloomily meditates and the fallen gloves which have escaped her notice. It’s highly plausible that Melchers painted the picture with the song in mind. Incidentally, today the portrait is a perennial favorite at the Detroit Institute of Art.

Here are the lyrics:

Verse 1

A little maiden climbed an old man’s knee,
Begged for a story – “Do, Uncle, please.
Why are you single; why live alone?
Have you no babies; have you no home?”
“I had a sweetheart years, years ago;
Where she is now pet, you will soon know.
List to the story, I’ll tell it all,
I believed her faithless after the ball.”

Refrain

After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.

Verse 2

Bright lights were flashing in the grand ballroom,
Softly the music playing sweet tunes.
There came my sweetheart, my love, my own –
“I wish some water; leave me alone.”
When I returned dear there stood a man,
Kissing my sweetheart as lovers can.
Down fell the glass pet, broken, that’s all,
Just as my heart was after the ball.

Repeat refrain

Verse 3

Long years have passed child, I’ve never wed.
True to my lost love though she is dead.
She tried to tell me, tried to explain;
I would not listen, pleadings were vain.
One day a letter came from that man,
He was her brother – the letter ran.
That’s why I’m lonely, no home at all;
I broke her heart pet, after the ball.

 

 

 

 

Alien Invasion or Picturesque Nostalgia?

Recently docent Trudy Hardcastle escorted a native Dutchwoman through Belmont who shared interesting information about George Hitchcock’s painting in the hall, The Annunciation.  She explained that the head ornaments on the Madonna are pictorial “code” for wealth. That inspired Trudy to dig a little deeper into the background of some of these strange and archaic forms of Dutch regional costume.

Trudy discovered an interesting site that helped us to identify the costume detail in Hitchcock’s painting as a traditional OORIJZER,  literally ear iron, or metal headgear,  worn on special occasions in conjunction with Dutch linen or lace caps, and passed down from generation to generation.   Pronounce it  Ōar īzer.  Many regions in Holland sport their own very distinctive costumes, including caps, cap pendants, jewelry and varying iterations of the oorijzer, which is usually worn mostly out of sight,  gripping the head under the cap, except for the terminals that are visible around the face.

Hitchcock’s  Madonna is wearing an oorijzer with silver rectangular plates representative of South Beveland, Zeeland. These ornaments helped to fasten the cap to the head with pins at the terminal knobs, but more importantly, are indicative of a woman’s economic status, and in some cases, her religious affiliation, that is, Protestant or Catholic. Hitchcock’s Madonna wears a silver rather than a gold oorijzer, which is appropriate for Mary, who the Bible tells us, was but a humble girl. Hitchcock was probably unwilling to accessorize his Madonna with the truly humble materials of copper, brass or iron that the really poor womenfolk of Holland might wear.  Hitchcock found the costumes of Holland very picturesque and rightly surmised that the more stereotypical elements he included in his pictures of Dutch life, the more marketable they would be.

Gari Melchers, on the other hand, was less interested in including the odd, sometimes helmet-like oorijzers than utilizing only the more feminine and decorative caps.  Off hand, the only instance in which I can remember him employing an oorijzer in a model’s costume was in his painting The Coral Necklace, which pictures an example of both the spiral wire curls and trefoil dangle of Middleburg, Holland. Honestly, some of these oorijzers look like radio antennaes!  Notice that the model in this painting also wears a showy gold and blood coral necklace common to many regions of Holland.

 

 

 

 

simmons

Souvenir of the Fair

Back in 2014 I wrote about all the images in our collection that pictured Gari Melchers and the artists who created them. The identity of one in particular, who sketched a funny caricature of a dapper Gari Melchers, remained elusive until today, when I stumbled on a clue in the archives of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, a fair organized to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ landfall in the New World, and to showcase the technological, cultural and artistic prowess of the nation, brought together scores of artists, sculptors, architects and decorators in the planning of the site and exhibitions. Somewhere in the process of their work, a small group of artists decided to amuse themselves by drawing caricatures of several committee members.

Two caricatures (pictured here) of Gari Melchers, who served on the selection committee

Robert Reid

Robert Reid

Edward Simmons

Edward Simmons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

of the American Art display, and whose murals decorated one of the exhibition halls, were produced by the American artists Robert Reid and Edward Simmons. Melchers is recognizable in these caricatures, drawings today contained in the Art Institute’s Daniel H. Burnham Collection of Papers. (Burnham was the architect of the Beau-Arts style fair buildings.)

Also contained in that collection is Burnham’s numbered list of the principal caricaturists and their subjects.

List of 1893 caricatures

List of 1893 caricatures

Number 53 lists a third rendition of Melchers, by Charles Yardley Turner, but that example is not in the Burnham Collection because Melchers himself walked away with the caricature. It resides today at Belmont, its creator now identified, thanks to the annotation  “53” in the upper left corner.

Bel 261 Melchers by C.Y. Turner