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.

Gari Melchers: Left or Right Handed?

Very often visitors to Belmont will see the many Gari Melchers self-portraits and paintings of him by other artists, as well as historical photographs, and ask us whether he painted with his left or right hand.

For many artists of earlier generations, before the advent of photography or whose self-portraits were limited to head and shoulders views, their  handedness  has been determined (as much as possible) through analysis of handwriting or the direction of brush strokes, or even by the shape and location of the thumb holes or paint remnants on surviving palettes.

Gari Melchers painting in his New York Studio
For Gari Melchers, who came of age during the expansion of popular photography in the late 19th century, the question is easy to answer.  Looking at a photo of Gari in his New York studio he is holding his brush in his right hand.

 

 

Portrait of an Artist in Profile, by Fritz Strobentz The Model, by Corinne Melchers

The same is true of two paintings of Gari by other artists.  Fritz Strobentz  painted a young Gari in a Dutch church and his wife Corinne painted him working at Belmont.

 

 

Self-Portrait with Hugo ReisingerThe one image that seems to confuse visitors is the painting currently on loan to Belmont from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, In the Studio, Hugo Reisinger and Gari Melchers.  In this painting, Gari seems to be painting with his left hand.  However, we must realize that he painted himself while looking in a mirror! Thus the orientation is reversed, as it is in all self-portraits painted from life (as opposed to using a photograph, which would show the correct orientation).

Gari Melchers was right handed.

 

Who was Gari Melchers
Video

Who was Gari Melchers?

Listen to Belmont Curator Joanna Catron explain why the modern art world has seemingly forgotten Gari Melchers in a talk she gave at the Bellarmine Museum in Fairfield, Connecticut in conjunction with the the exhibition, “Gari Melchers: An American Impressionist at Home and Abroad.  Catron claims its his own doing.

Video

A Plein Air Artist’s Paradise

Artists of all types and ages are encouraged to use Belmont as the backdrop for their artistic pursuits.

Gari Melchers enjoyed plein air painting his entire career.  Of special note to us are the pictures he produced at or around Belmont, his Virginia country home from 1916 to 1932.  In some cases, the views he transferred to canvas are remarkably unchanged today.

 

HAHS

Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios

Did you know that Gari Melchers Home & Studio is a member of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program (HAHS) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation? HAHS is a coalition of more than 30 museums that were the homes and working studios of American artists. Come, witness creativity!

HAHS

 

 

 

 

Gallery

Let’s Face It! Remembering Gari Melchers

Hang around artists long enough and you’re bound to have your portrait painted. That explains why there are so many portraits of Gari Melchers by his friends in the collection at Belmont.

When an early portrait of Gari Melchers recently surfaced, I got to thinking about all the renderings of him I’d seen over the years. The variety of sketches, paintings and sculpture not only complements the photographic record we have of him, but as subjective invention, they also hint at the strong and affectionate bond that existed between Melchers and his associates. Here are several, but by no means all the examples.

Sometimes artists paint one another for amusement. Take for example the anonymous caricature of a dapper Gari Melchers. Is the artist poking fun at Melchers’ ears or his sartorial discomfort (Melchers professed a habitual preference for wearing an old pullover and clogs)? Bel 261

Getting a live model to stay still is a perennial frustration for an artist, which is probably why a furtive companion couldn’t pass up the chance to document Melchers catching forty winks in this quick pen and ink sketch.

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Melchers liked a good jest himself. In his 1897 rendition of Christ and His Pilgrims at Emmaus, he copied this profile portrait painted of himself by fellow American expatriate, James J. Shannon, for the face of Christ.

Bel 1826 color (1)

When models aren’t available or are too expensive, art students usually turn to their classmates as subjects. Melchers was a strikingly handsome young man, with soft grey eyes, a sculpted nose and cleft chin, and a pleasing bow-shaped mouth. No wonder he was sketched so often. By the time his training was complete, he sported a moustache and goatee, and possessed a decidedly cosmopolitan elegance, at least in the eyes of former classmates Fritz Strobentz, an unidentified classmate and Henry Hamel.

In commemoration of Melchers’ first international success, Strobentz again painted his old friend and classmate at work at the site of his award-winning painting, The Sermon, 1886. Perhaps Melchers and Strobentz anticipated a winning streak, for it deliberately documents Melchers at work on the concept for his next major salon entry, In Holland.strobentz painting in church

Which reminds me of the early portrait which recently came to light. A private dealer and art consultant brought another portrait to my attention that was painted by a classmate of Melchers, the Swiss Nabi painter, Felix Vallotton. The Melchers portrait was purchased by the dealer at a Paris sale in 1999 as one of six portraits by Vallotton of former classmates of the Academie Julian in Paris. You can already see in Vallotton’s portrait of Melchers something of the flat, simplified and strongly delineated figuration that typified his later avant-garde style. Melchers looks every bit the serious and introspective painter described by biographers in these years, when he was working so determinedly to make a name for himself at the Paris salon.

GM by Felix Vallotton ca 85-86

shannon portraitBy the time of his marriage at age 43, Melchers was a critical and commercial success, and portraits of him convey a sense of his new found confidence and ease. I refer to James J. Shannon’s Portrait of Gari Melchers as an example. I tend to think of this as a wedding portrait, though that may not have been the official intent. Undoubtedly it was painted around the time of his vows, and his apparel is appropriately stylish and his wedding ring visible. Melchers’ likeness bears an air of dignity and taste, surrounded as he is by old world antiques like the Flemish portrait of an aristocratic girl and the Dutch candle sconce serving as decorative backdrop.

Melchers went on a driving tour of Southern France and Spain in 1904 with two wealthy industrialist brothers, Charles and James Deering. The road systems in Spain were still fairly primitive and the threesome was often beset by punctures and bad weather. Consequently a few occasions called for Melchers, ever the dedicated artist, to climb aboard a donkey and set out for the frontier in order to sketch the natives and surrounding countryside, as recorded here by one of his more artistically endowed traveling companions.Deering's draw

A decade later, while serving as a distinguished professor at the Grand Ducal Academy of Art in Weimar, Germany, Melchers’ German colleague Fritz Mackensen, director of the school, hastily produced a sketch of the artist with his eyes lowered over his reading. The newspapers at this time were full of bad news as the war in Europe escalated, eventually sending Melchers and his wife home to the United States for good.

Bel 2156Emil Fuchs was an Austrian-American painter and sculptor known for his portraits of wealthy socialites. While living in Great Britain in 1915, a wave of anti-German sentiment caused Fuchs to move permanently to New York. He produced this bust of Gari Melchers the following year. Fuchs had surgery for cancer in 1928, and in anticipation of a death with great suffering he shot himself at the Hotel des Artistes in New York on 13 January, 1929. The Brooklyn Museum owns the bronze bust, a plaster copy of which is in the Smithsonian.Emil Fuchs Bust of GM 1916 smithsonian

Back home in the post war years Melchers was depicted in a classically inspired low relief portrait by the eminent American sculptor Paul Manship. By now Melchers was a well-respected representative of the old guard of artists and a leader of several arts clubs and organizations. Manship casts him in profile like the face of a Roman emperor stamped on a coin, an honorable presentation for a distinguished man of arts.

Bel 1924    Manship

But there’s more than one side to a man. The artist’s wife recorded a much older and beefier Melchers at his easel in a droll little pencil sketch from the late 1920s.

Bel 2209