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.
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.
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 (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.
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!
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.
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.
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.