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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
By 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.
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.
Emil 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.
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.
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.