Gari Melchers has a faint sign on Interstate 95—but who was he? The story of one of Virginia’s great but largely forgotten artists and the legacy he left the state.
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Mother and Chile with Orange, 1890.
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The Nativity, 1891.
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The studio of Gari Melchers.
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Gari Melchers, circa 1886.
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A view of the walk in front of the house.
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One side of the parlor.
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The rear wall of Melchers' studio.
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A statue with a plaque declaring Belmont a Registered National Historic Landmark.
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The summer house.
Pick a pretty day to visit Belmont, a day when the air is clear and the sunlight is strong, and you’ll understand why, in 1916, America’s leading portrait painter chose to settle here. Gari Melchers was an internationally renowned artist at the time, and not long after he and his wife saw the old house in Stafford County, a few miles north of Fredericksburg, they laid out the princely sum of $12,000 to purchase the estate. For a man whose clients paid almost that much for a single portrait, it was affordable. Melchers’ art studio and home sit high on a ridge overlooking the tiny river port of Falmouth, a charming scene that he painted often.
Known all over the world during his lifetime, Gari Melchers is little remembered today. “He captured every artistic award and medal available in his day,” says David Berreth, Director of the Gari Melchers Home and Studio, “and his paintings hang in every major museum. But his reputation drifted off after his death in 1932, because of the rise of modernism. His work seemed old-fashioned. And he was not a real innovator in technique or style.”
Melchers was a man who lived in two worlds: His younger and older years were spent in America, and his middle, most productive years in Europe. Born in 1860 in Detroit, he showed early ability and was sent off to art school in Germany at 17. It was his mother’s choice—she didn’t want him exposed to Parisian hedonism at so tender an age. He managed to get to Paris by age 21, however, and promptly fell in with the more progressive artists of the day. But there would be no starving in a cramped garret for young Melchers: Success came quickly to this naturalist painter, whose rural scenes of peasant life launched his career.
At 24, he founded an art colony in Holland and quickly achieved a reputation for capturing on canvas the rustic Dutch lifestyle. Soon the prolific artist had an international following, particularly in America and Germany, where sentimental depictions of virtuous peasants were much appreciated. Known for vibrant color and natural outdoor lighting, Melchers produced scores of portraits, landscapes, nudes, mother-and-child portrayals and Biblical scenes.
Critically acclaimed and commercially popular throughout his 50-year career, he never lacked patronage or recognition. At the young age of 29, he and John Singer Sargent became the first two American painters to receive a Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition. Later, he was based in Germany, where he became a professor of art at the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Art. But no matter where he lived, he frequently traveled back and forth between Europe and America.
On one of many trans-Atlantic crossings, he met the woman who would become his wife and who, in later years, would donate their home, art and belongings to the Commonwealth of Virginia. “I am prostrate and overjoyed,” wrote 21-year-old Corinne Mackall in her diary, “at finding Gari Melchers’ name on the passenger list and keep all eyes open to see him.” She found him. Despite a 20-year age difference, the young art student and the famous artist married and for the next dozen years lived in Holland, Paris and Germany. But Melchers was always an American, and when World War I broke out, he grew uncomfortable living in Germany. He and Corinne returned to America in 1915.
New York was a good commercial base, but the couple missed the rural tranquility they had known in Holland. They began searching for a pastoral retreat and found it in Virginia’s Stafford County, sitting on a hill above the old port of Falmouth. Only half-a-day by train from New York City, Belmont became their principal home. Next to the house, Gari had a stone studio built, with an enormous window on the north side to let in the sort of light he preferred. Here he painted the rural scenes that had always enchanted him, scenes of Falmouth and the Virginia countryside. Active in professional circles, he served on the Virginia Art Commission and chaired the effort to establish the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.
Joanna Catron, Belmont’s curator, says that Gari Melchers soon became a local fixture. “There’s a story told about his early days in Falmouth. Dressed in overalls, he headed down the dirt road toward Nelson Berry’s Store. Inside the store, two local residents gave Belmont’s new owner a friendly greeting and inquired about his occupation. ‘I paint,’ replied the artist. Exchanging amused glances, they shook their heads, and one broke the news to their new neighbor, saying, ‘Well, mister, you won’t get much work ‘round here, ’cause we jist whitewash.’” A couple years ago, the house exterior was repainted (not whitewashed) in colors accurate to the Melchers’ era: a cheerful Dutch blue for the doors and a bright blue-green on the shutters.
Melchers died at Belmont in 1932. Corinne remained there another 23 years, promoting her husband’s work and cultivating his reputation along with her roses and tulips. In 1942, she left the estate and all their art and belongings to the Commonwealth of Virginia to be used as a park and memorial to her husband. Today, the property is ably administered for the Commonwealth by the University of Mary Washington.
Virginia does historic houses very well, and Belmont is no exception. But the Gari Melchers house breaks with the traditional format in two ways. For one, it is not furnished as most are, with antiques that correspond to the house’s origins. Belmont dates from the 1790s, yet it does not represent an early Federal interior. Rather, it is a snapshot of the international tastes and lifestyle of a famous artist, and is fully furnished with the unusual European antiques and objects Melchers and his wife collected.
It is also an art museum. “We have about 2,000 works of art,” says David Berreth. “About 500 of those are Melchers’ paintings. Others are his sketches and studies, or works by other artists he collected, including paintings by his wife, who was an accomplished artist in her own right.”
Melchers’ later years in Virginia were prolific, in volume and in diversity. He painted landscapes, still lifes and religious subjects, but portraits were his mainstay. Vanderbilts, Mellons and Roosevelts sought him out at his New York studio; when he was at Belmont, he painted prominent Virginians such as Douglas Southall Freeman and Governor John Garland Pollard. But his favorite subjects were the everyday people and scenes of rural life he encountered in and around Fredericksburg.
The Gari Melchers Home and Studio and its restored gardens are located just one mile off I-95. GariMelchers.org