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

 

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.

Couple in a Dutch Kitchen
Image

Another Conundrum of Connoisseurship!

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.

Last Supper Lamplight

Last Supper Lamplight

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.

Hitchcock Scribners 89 article fireplace in a Dutch studio

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.

Kitchen Madonna

Kitchen Madonna

Polishing a Tray

Polishing a Tray

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.