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.

 

Crimson Rambler

Another Ramblin’ Rose Graces Belmont

Crimson Rambler

Crimson Rambler

For a renowned figure painter like Gari Melchers, it was out of the ordinary to devote an entire canvas to the view of an empty garden, but the vision of a flourishing rose outside his own backdoor proved irresistible. The painting, which he titled The Crimson Rambler, will make a special appearance here at Belmont beginning February 28 through June 7, 2015, thanks to a generous loan from private collectors.

Gari Melchers painted The Crimson Rambler at his residence in Holland sometime around 1915. A rose arbor and a neighboring tree are the principal features of a cultivated garden setting.  Less prominent, but strategically placed at compositional center, is a statue at the far end of the lawn. The arbor is slightly off center, enhancing the illusion that given a few more steps one should pass directly into the garden through the arbor path. The arbor and tree served as frameworks upon which Melchers built up chromatically intensifying layers of pure, vibrating color, resulting in the “sensation” of a garden rather than the literal rendering of one, a key impressionist objective.

The Crimson Rambler is the first and only instance in which Melchers painted a pure garden piece. It’s a wonder that he didn’t paint the floral environment more often.  For an artist bent on painting in the language of impressionism, with its emphasis on rich color and open air painting to render the transitory effects of sunlight, what better subject than the lush variety of form and color offered by a garden.

Tea in the Garden

Tea in the Garden

But Melchers’ first love was the figure, and happily, he gave us equally pleasing glimpses into gardens adorned with fashionable ladies, probably the most popular impressionist motif of all. In his Tea in the Garden (private collection), a genteel group of women gather out-of-doors to enjoy their refreshment under the shelter of trees.  This isn’t a portrait of a garden per se, but it echoes the prevailing vogue for pictures of fresh air, sunlight and the beauties of nature in harmony with the beauty of womanhood.

Impressionism’s success among American artists was due in part to the emerging popularity of flower gardening and the Colonial garden revival movement that permeated American culture. In the many gardening publications that appeared, it was asserted that gardening and painting were parallel arts, so it’s not surprising to read of celebrated painters who designed their own gardens, if you will, as living canvases. That Melchers himself didn’t garden was immaterial. Living in Holland, Melchers was surrounded by a heavily cultivated natural world.  His wife was mad for playing in the dirt, an avocation begun in the early years of their married life when she tended roses, strawberry clumps, and fruit trees in their backyard.  And some of Melchers’ artist friends cultivated enchanting gardens, like the American painter of Dutch tulip fields, George Hitchcock, at his historic home called Schuylenburg.

Hitchcock's Putto

Hitchcock’s Putto

It was in Hitchcock’s garden that a moss-covered statue of a nude boy or “putto” presided over an old pond, a setting that so charmed Melchers he sat down to paint it on at least two occasions. In Lily Pond (private collection) two women in old-fashioned dress stand in a sunlit glade of trees at the far side of the pond. The picture consists of broadly painted touches of muted, atmospheric color that give the ladies, and the reflection their figures cast in the nearby pond, a phantom-like appearance suggestive of the property’s storied past. Lily Pond had just the kind of nostalgic overtones to suit the current taste for old gardens.

In My Garden

In My Garden

In My Garden (Butler Institute, Youngstown, Ohio), another view of the pond looking towards the gable end of the house at Schuylenburg, pictures three maids pausing in their duties to converse on the lawn.  Images of domestics at work in affluent settings connoted the prosperous lifestyle so valued by Americans in the Gilded Age.  The textured surface of the painting and its prismatic pattern of dappled sunlight evoke a rich tapestry effect characteristic of the best impressionist canvases.

House Under the Trees

House Under the Trees

Pictures reflecting the ease and idle hours of the leisure class had a ready market. Building on his successes in this vein, Melchers stepped into the front garden of Schuylenburg to paint another maid and his wife at play with her terrier under a glittering canopy of filtered sunlight.  They are surrounded by what appears to be an extravagance of flowering bushes, but whether or not they are in bloom is impossible to discern for the only surviving image I have in our archives is a black and white photograph of the canvas, entitled House under the Trees.  If anyone knows the whereabouts of the original, go ahead, make my day!

Putto

Putto

Melchers turned to the setting of his own backyard for inspiration. There Gari and Corinne Melchers installed their own painted wooden putto in the center of the lawn, in alignment with the arbor over which Mrs. Melchers trained the multiflora rose Turner’s Crimson Rambler, featured in the painting of the same name. Mrs. Melchers was justifiably proud of her crimson rambler, which probably explains why it served to frame a photograph of her in the garden with her terrier and the putto. Gari Melchers saw the possibilities presented by the photograph that undeniably led him to paint The Crimson Rambler.

Woman Reading by a Window

Woman Reading by a Window

The dog, his mistress and the profusely covered rose arbor served as the shimmering backdrop in another felicitous icon of domestic tranquility, Woman Reading by a Window (private collection).  Incidentally, if you didn’t already know, the couple brought the putto with them to Belmont where it survives today, though a bit worse for wear.  In 2010 it was faithfully copied in bronze and restored to its original location on the lawn by the Garden Club of Virginia.

The Unpretentious Garden

The Unpretentious Garden

In The Unpretentious Garden (Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA), the rear elevation of Melchers’ seventeenth-century Dutch cottage shares the stage with the figure of a maid watering the rose arbor and neighboring herbaceous border.  Mrs. Melchers is seated in a wicker chair in the foreground of the lawn, her fashionably shaded head bent over her sewing. She is an emblem of the era’s cult of female beauty, as decorous as the flowers in her garden. The rose arbor is centered in the composition, symbolizing as one art historian conjectured, nature and woman as beautiful, balanced and tamed.  Pictures like these were guaranteed commercial success, and the wide appeal of their well-developed Victorian message, not to mention Melchers’ preference for the human figure, might explain why he abandoned intimate views into gardens devoid of people and other distractions.

Once he returned to the United States, Melchers found much to appreciate in the gardens of Virginia, but from then on he only reproduced gardens in concert with the people who tended them or the buildings the gardens beautified. One example, owned by Belmont, The Grape Arbor, No. 1, will be displayed alongside The Crimson Rambler this spring.

The Grape Arbor, No. 1

The Grape Arbor, No. 1

photo of Mason Dillon behind the plow

Back in the Day

“Back in the day” Belmont in September was a lively place, lively in the sense of human activity as well as the emerging splendor of autumn.   According to Corinne Melchers’ diary of the 1920s, the flurry of harvest time labors included canning tomatoes, beans and apples, bottling wine, cutting hay, shocking corn, keeping vigil at a calving, and cleaning the flower beds.   Gari Melchers, if at home for a rest, was quite naturally lured out of doors, walking the environs of the property to document it all with his animated brushwork and alluring colors.

Another excitement was the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, which rolled around every September, to the great anticipation of everyone including Gari and Corinne Melchers. The horse races were a favorite attraction, inspiring a painting by Gari Melchers titled The Race, Country Fair. The couple entered Lady Corinne and Rex in the judging of livestock, and Mason Dillon, Belmont’s long-time groundskeeper, loaded up gallons of fresh milk for the milk shake booth Mrs. Melchers helped man at the fairgrounds. Needless to say, the current staff at Belmont is grateful that the culinary and calving activities are a thing of the past!

Pictured is a photo of Mason Dillon behind the plow and two paintings by Melchers entitled Shocking Corn (private collection) and The Race, Country Fair, all dating to the 1920s.

photo of Mason Dillon behind the plow"Shocking Corn," by Gari Melchers, private collection, circa 1920s "The Race, County Fair," by Gari Melchers, circa 1920s