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

Paul Neyron

Winter Gardening

Winter is a good time to settle down with seed and plant catalogs and a nice cup of hot tea. The weather is freezing and gardeners are hiding inside, out of the wind and cold. We can still garden however, at least in our heads.

Mailboxes, both digital and physical, are filled with seed and plant catalogs that allow us to dream and plan for spring. I prefer the paper version for browsing since I can dog ear or use a post-it to mark my selections, but I like to order on-line as it will let you know instantly if the seeds you want are available. Many catalogs offer seedlings as well, this is a great option if you only want a few plants or if you can not be bothered with growing your own plants from seeds.

I try to plant what I know Corinne Melchers used in the garden, or at least the variety of plants that were available to her during the period she gardened at Belmont, 1916-1955. This means I purchase a lot of heirloom plants, and I have found that this has many benefits. Some, though not all, heirloom seeds that are available for sale are Open Pollinated (OP) seeds and these will grow true from the seeds they produce, meaning you can save their seeds year to year and get the same plant that you initially purchased.

Paul Neyron

The fragrant Paul Neyron rose

Another benefit of heirloom plants is that they usually are much more fragrant than their modern hybrids, and this is the benefit I enjoy the most, just one deep whiff of an old rose is enough to make you a convert. Many of the old varieties are quite disease resistant and tough survivors, this is especially true of roses and peonies. Some of these plants have been around for hundreds of years and growing them is a wonderful way to connect with the past.

Here are some of my favorite catalogs, have fun!

Select Seeds
Seed Savers Exchange
The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants at Monticello
John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds
Old House Gardens
The Antique Rose Emporium

Belmont’s Roses

Since my first days at Belmont in 1999, I have combed through our archives looking for clues to what the buildings, gardens, and grounds looked like when Gari and Corinne Melchers lived and worked here.

It became apparent early on that roses played an important part in the landscape. The archives are filled with photographs, letters, and scraps of paper, all helping me to tease out the names of roses that grew in their garden. The hunt for replacement of the old roses, some of which are very rare, has been very rewarding as well, and has allowed me to meet and correspond with rosarians and rose collectors across the world.

Corinne Melchers was the main force behind the garden, and she planted roses on arbors, trellises and in boxwood edged beds. She purchased the newest hybrids available from nurseries, or traded cuttings from friends, resulting in a wide range of roses in the collection. So far, the archives search has uncovered 33 different varieties, ranging from huge sprawling monster roses to delicate and fragile specimens.

Most of the roses original to the garden were lost over the years. But thanks to Bill and Maxine Chandler, longtime caretakers at Belmont, some of the roses original to the time when Gari and Corinne Melchers lived at Belmont survived. Bill Chandler took cuttings from the old plants growing on the arbors and nurtured them in his own garden. His skill saved Tausendschön, a Hybrid Multiflora, and American Pillar, a rambler, which grew on the arbors at either end of the Long Walk.

Tausendschön and American Pillar blooming on the arbors.

Tausendschön and American Pillar blooming on the arbors.

Another two survivors from early days is the rose on the fence between the stable and smoke house and the brilliant red rose growing on the spring house arbor. These are both root stock roses, meaning they originally had a more exotic rose grafted to them. The graft died, but the root stock survived. The result is the fragrant and lovely Fun Jwan Lo, and Dr. Heuey, both vigorous roses used as a root stock in the 1920’s. They are not the roses Corinne Melchers chose, but both are so lovely and tough, that I have decided to leave them in place. I purchase only non-grafted stock, also known as own root roses, for the gardens. They take a little more time to get established, but the will come true from the root should cold weather or stray lawnmowers cut them to the ground. Own root roses are available from nurseries specializing in antique or old roses, see links at the end to find great sources.

Fun Jwan Lo

Fun Jwan Lo

Dr. Huey

Dr. Huey

Most of the named varieties I have found in the archives do not have a reference to where they were planted in the garden, but the roses on the east and west porches are exceptions. Mrs. Melchers noted that she planted Paul’s Scarlet Climber on the east porch and Aviateur Bleriot on the west side of the house. Both are back in place, and the trellises they grow on are made to match the originals, based on archival photographs.

Paul’s Scarlet Climber growing near the east porch.

Paul’s Scarlet Climber growing near the east porch.

View of house ca 1927. The climbing rose Aviateur can be seen climbing up the house between the parlor windows.

View of house ca 1927. The climbing rose Aviateur can be seen climbing up the house between the parlor windows.

A Town and Country Magazine article from 1928 makes mention of the “rose garden edged in box”. Two boxwood edged beds, flanking the Visitor Center, then carriage house, were re-created by the Garden Club of Virginia in the fall of 2012 as part of the ongoing garden restoration effort. Mrs. Melchers planted these beds with the hybrid tea roses Gruss An Achen, and Radiance, and it is rewarding to see this lovely mix of pink colors blooming once more.

Corinne Melchers did not specialize in one rose category, but planted roses that pleased her esthetic values. Hybrid tea roses became very popular at the turn of the century, and Mrs. Melchers tried many new varieties, such as the single hybrid tea rose Dainty Bess. She also used hybrid perpetual roses, the luscious Paul Neyron is one example which falls in the category of “cabbage” roses, with flower-heads are as big as small cabbages.

Dainty Bess

Dainty Bess

Paul Neyron

Paul Neyron

All the roses planted in the main garden area are replacements of rose varieties gleaned from the archives. There is one exception to this rule, however; the roses flanking the memorial plaque in the Studio wall. The ashes of both Gari and Corinne Melchers are interred in the wall, and I have planted roses corresponding with the years of their birth and death to mark their final resting place. Roses are associated with love and purity, and have been a common adornment in cemeteries for many centuries. In fact, many old roses have been found and saved by “rose rustlers” who, with permission of course, take cuttings from old roses to propagate and spread the historic plant material across the nation. In fact, a rose thought to be extinct, the Musk Rose, was discovered by group of rustlers growing in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. It is now saved and grows in many gardens.

Gari Melchers was born in 1860, and Corinne Melchers died in 1955. The roses planted in front of their internment site represent almost one hundred years of rose breeding. It is interesting to see the difference in their habit, blooms, and presence, or lack of, scent, rose hips, etc. in the four roses planted there. They reflect the traits rose breeders thought would appeal to the public, and illustrate that what we find desirable in our roses has changed over the years. The roses in this bed range from a finicky, but deeply fragrant tea rose called Mme. Joseph Schwartz, released in 1880, the year of Corinne Melchers birth, to a sturdy, scentless, showy shrub called Dortmund, introduced in 1955.

Left to right: Heideröslein – 1932, Dr. Briere – 1860, Mme. Joseph Schwartz – 1880, Dortmund – 1955.

Left to right: Heideröslein – 1932, Dr. Briere – 1860, Mme. Joseph Schwartz – 1880, Dortmund – 1955.

Depending on the weather, the main rose season starts in April and goes through early June, with some roses putting out flowers all year long.

There are lots of great resources related to old roses. Here are just a few to get you hooked.

Texas Rose Rustlers
Center for Historic Plants at Monticello
HelpMeFindRoses