A Conversation Piece Elicits Conversation

I am happy to report that a long-neglected portrait in the Belmont collection is about to have its day in the sun. Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy has just returned from conservation and it’s a beauty. I have always considered it well painted, but because it was marred by paint loss and a disfiguring scratch, I thought it best to install it over a bedroom fireplace, well away from the discerning eyes of our guests. Consequently, no one has ever been able to appreciate what a fine little portrait it is.  It has been hard to give it its due because Gari and Corinne Melchers left us no clue as to the identities of the subjects and what, if any, personal significance the sitters may have had to the couple. It would be useful to know how the picture came into their possession, but that also remains a mystery.

Bel 1888 after conserv

R. V. ?, Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy, circa 1800-1810, oil on panel.                                    Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Represented in our charming double portrait is a little boy with carrot-colored hair and a mature lady whom I assume to be his grandmother. They come to us from a bygone era, she in a fashionable empire gown and mob cap and he in tiny pointed slippers and what is probably his first pair of trousers, still fitted with a drop seat for “easy access.”

The painting is a classic example of a type of portraiture referred to as a conversation piece. The conversation piece is defined as a relatively small painting – ours is 20 x 16 inches – reproducing an informal scene of a family group or a circle of friends within an intimate interior, the intention of which is to reproduce likenesses and extoll the comfort and virtues of domestic life. The genre probably stems from the 17th-century Dutch tradition, but was popularized again in the 18th-century by the neoclassical painter Johan Zoffany, who worked in the court of George III.  Thousands of conversation pieces were painted in the 18th-century, and the figures often are merely “portrait-like,” an attractive child or a fashionable woman, for example, but who are, in fact, only stock types.  We might have to admit that our own portrait pair might be frauds!

Still, I’ve come to regard our subjects with great curiosity and affection. If they did once live, just exactly who are they? Grandmamma is certainly handsome and genteel. She is also house-proud, purposely planting herself in a well-appointed chamber of the family home. Expensive drapes, carpet and wall paper enhance the beauty of the room, and more lovely things are within her reach, such as the pile of engraved prints and an elegant glass-domed clock. Clocks are often featured in conversation pieces as emblems of Time, the regulator of domestic life. Our lady tenderly rests a hand upon what must be her dearest earthly treasure, the cunning little boy who leans familiarly against her lap, directing our gaze to the open book he balances on her knee.

1-2015 2018 D_ detail central figures - Copy

Their identities may never be solved but we may be closer to unlocking that of the artist, thanks to the assistance of our paintings conservator Perry Hurt and art historians from Colonial Williamsburg and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. When the portrait underwent conservation treatment, Mr. Hurt discovered the remnants of a signature on the rear of the chair seat at the far right. The signature is nearly indecipherable, but we can just make out the first letter, “R,” followed by the letter “V” or “K,” and followed by what could be letters or  numbers.

Bel 1888 signature

I sent photographs of the freshly restored portrait and details of the signature to art historians of 18th and 19th-century European and American painting. The initials led to a dead end, and there was no clear consensus as to the work being an American or French production. They did agree, however, on a dating of approximately 1800-1810, based on the classicizing style of the costumes and French Directoire furnishings. This style also characterizes the work of both Continental and American portrait miniaturists who were active in the United States at the same time. It is worth noting that Mrs. Melchers, a descendant of old Baltimore and Savannah families, inherited several family likenesses dating to this period. It is entirely possible that the portrait of the old lady and boy is yet another family heirloom.

Laura Barry, Juli Grainger Curator of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture at Colonial Williamsburg, gave us our next important lead. Our painting reminded her of another, “L’Optique, by the French artist Louis-Leopold Boilly (1761-1845). Boilly was known for his precisely detailed conversation pieces documenting French middle–class life.

Fred Caxenave after LL Boilly le optique 1800

Boilly’s  L’Optique (The Optical Viewer), dating to about 1793 and shown here in an engraving of the period, follows a similar formula as our portrait, that of a domestic scene in which a woman and child view engravings of famous land- and cityscapes with the aid of a perspectival glass or zograscope. A perspectival glass is an optical device

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comprised of an angled convex lens and reflective mirror used to heighten the illusion of three-dimensionality when viewing prints. Now I don’t mean to suggest that we have a Boilly, but I simply point out here that “R.V.”  whomever that might be, was following in the same tradition as Boilly.

Curiously, Gari and Corinne Melchers, avid art collectors in their own right, collected dozens of these old engraved views, some of which they displayed along their                  staircase where they continue today. It is just possible the couple acquired the                      Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy because of their interest in the engravings. Or did they collect the engravings because it was suggested by the content of the painting?

Boilly’s pictures were criticized in his day for being “too Dutch,” meaning too focused on the sphere of the household in emulation of the Old Master painter Gerard Terborch. Gari Melchers made his career in Holland and early on began to collect old masters. He particularly revered Terborch. It stands to reason, then, why Melchers might seriously consider acquiring an image such as the Portrait of a Lady and Young Boy for his own collection.

I hope to reinstall our mystery portrait in a location that will allow closer inspection, but for the time being, it is in storage awaiting a new frame. The frame that formerly housed the portrait was not the original and was ill-suited in style. Please stay tuned. As soon as it goes up on the wall we will announce it!

 

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New Melchers Comes to Light

Little Green House, The Melchers

The Little Green House

A painting entirely new to me by Gari Melchers entitled The Little Green House has surfaced, and is to be sold at auction in Sotheby’s American Art sale scheduled for March 28, 2018. The signed oil on canvas measuring 18 ½ x 15 1/8 inches has been assigned a presale estimate of $10,000-15,000. Based on comparable examples, I would date the canvas to about 1910.

Melchers found an inexhaustible supply of old world charm in both the people and landscapes of Holland. In his first twenty years there, Melchers made the North Sea’s dunescapes the primary setting for his paintings of Dutch fisher folk.  Next he turned inland to reproduce farmsteads, humble cottages, townhouses with their distinctive stepped and bell-shaped gables and picturesque summer homes perched along the banks of canals or in the setting of gentile gardens.

In my Garden

In My Garden

Many of these paintings began life as modestly sized, sketchy renderings produced from a boat or from the other side of a canal.  Some were worked up into major easel paintings, such as In My Garden, from the Butler Art Institute, while others the artist developed no further.  The Little Green House, with its wonky two story cottage and cursory execution, might be just such an example. I don’t recognize the building in any other known work by Melchers, but the formula is characteristic for him as seen in House with Green Gables at the University of Washington, Little House in Egmond, Holland, privately owned, and Old Houses, Slotweg, also privately owned.

house with green gables   House with Green Gables                            Little House in Egmond, Holland   Little House in Egmond, Holland

Old Houses, Slotweg    Old Houses, Slotweg

 

Tapestry and Vase In One!

For the first time in 1000 years it looks like the famed Bayeux Tapestry will be allowed to travel for exhibition to England, the country whose early history it so evocatively recounts.

“In a sensational stroke of cultural diplomacy,” writes the Washington Post, French President Emmanuel Macron, made the announcement at a bilateral meeting in which the French were pressuring Britain to help pay for the cross channel border patrol.  The loan of this fragile masterpiece is not scheduled to take place until 2022 so that conservators can stabilize the 20” x 70 yard wool-embroidered linen panel.

The priceless tapestry depicts, in a continuous narrative, the crushing defeat of England by William the Conqueror. The Battle of Hastings is the centerpiece of the embroidered history, beginning with the story of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who briefly took the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor, only to be defeated just months into his reign by William, Duke of Normandy.

The tapestry’s archaic, yet richly colored drawings in wool inspired the designs of the late nineteenth century French ceramicist Louis-Etienne Desmant (1844-1902). Desmant’s Bayeux series of pottery, an example of which was acquired by Gari and Corinne Melchers, was fabricated out of  earthenware and glazed in a distinctive red and iridescent lustre spatter in the Hispano-Moorish tradition.

The Belmont piece is a superlative example by the Desmant pottery. It is an unusually large vase with a pair of rustic handles, the whole in pristine condition. The vase, signed Desmant, dates to around 1900-10 and is either the work of Desmant or his son Lucien, as the work of both artists is difficult to differentiate. The images featured on either side of the vase were drawn directly from the original tapestry, an enthroned image of Widdo (Latin for Guy) who apprehended Harold on behalf of William of Normandy and two of William’s soldiers on horseback.

Bel 3452 Desmant Vase with Widdo enthroned

Bel 3452 Desmant Vase with Willimas soldiers

Feelin At Home

Recently when my husband and I were visiting our son we spent a pleasurable afternoon in the Seattle Art Museum. They have a wonderful collection.  In anticipation of my upcoming trip to the Hudson River Valley, I paid particular attention to the pioneering examples of American landscape painting produced by the brotherhood of painters known collectively as the Hudson River School.  I wonder if it is too much to expect the same congenial and spirit-filled views of the region’s peace and plenty when visiting the real thing!

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I really felt at home in the museum when I encountered two monumental Dutch cupboards called kasten (kast is the singular, or kas, commonly used by the English), with wide overhanging cornices, deeply beveled paneling and enormous bun-shaped feet to protect the contents from threat of damp in low-lying  Holland (top).  Atop each kast was an impressive garniture set of Dutch Delft earthenware.  Gari Melchers brought back his own pair of seven foot high kasten (one example at bottom), and crates full of Delft, when he returned permanently to the United States in 1915.

Kast

Kasten were popularized in 17th century Netherlands when merchants, enriched by maritime trade with the East, needed tall and roomy cupboards to store valuable household items such as silver, linens, porcelain and Delft .  The massive kasten were usually finished in veneered rosewood and ebony, and were produced in three sections, which must have made moving them a far easier exercise!

The distinctive blue and white earthenware of Holland (the best came out of the city of Delft) was produced in imitation of more expensive Chinese porcelains.  The bodies, though made of clay, and decoration of the best of these wares were prized along with porcelain.

Melchers used the two kasten in his studio for the storage of art supplies, costumes, props and equipment, while Mrs. Melchers hoarded the best Delft and porcelain for display in the couple’s house.

Melchers’ Little Flying Dutchman

An old ship model now hangs aloft in one corner of Gari Melchers’ studio at Belmont. It is the very same model the painter suspended from the ceiling of his studio in Holland years earlier, as documented by a photograph of his studio interior from around 1890/95.

MSW1.25 with detail

The ship model reproduces a three-masted sailing vessel. It is not the typical shallow-drafted fishing botter or bom of the North Sea, with their funny wings (leeboards) that extend out over the water to steady the boat as the nets are worked in the wind. Models reproducing that Dutch type are also on display in the Belmont studio.

Why hang a ship model from the ceiling? Melchers loved all things Dutch and immersed himself in that culture by adopting many of the age-old traditions of his seafaring community. In the region where Melchers once lived and worked, ships models were commonly hung from the ceilings of churches.

Consider the architectural shape and principal features of any Christian church, most notably its vaulting and nave.  Churches have been metaphorically seen as upturned ship’s hulls (the Latin for ship is navis). The imagery of the ship too, has often been viewed as an allegory for the voyage of a Christian life, sometimes navigating through peace, sometimes through storm, to its eventual berth in the Kingdom of God. Several times in the Bible, from Noah’s ark to the miracle of Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee, we read of stories about ships and boats weathering storms with God’s help. So it is not surprising that ship models should appear in churches.

Votive ship models displayed in Western European churches, especially those located in port towns, were common as far back as the Middle Ages. The practice most likely originated out of Denmark, and because of North Holland’s strong trading ties to early Scandinavian sea culture, the tradition proliferated there, exactly where Melchers lived and drew his inspiration.

A church’s ship model might serve as a symbol of a town’s dependence on the sea for its livelihood, presented as a gift by a local shipper’s or fishermen’s guild. The models might also act as reminders of a life or lives lost or as a protection from the perils of the sea for local ships and their crew. Sometimes the ships were gifted in gratitude by sailors who had survived dangerous trips or war at sea.

Gari Melchers’ ship model appeared together with the related painting Old and Young as a Spotlight Exhibition loan in 2016, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Robert G. Beck, who acquired both pieces in the late 1970s and who have generously presented the ship model as a permanent gift to Gari Melchers Home and Studio.

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