Gari Melchers (1860–1932)

Gari Melchers was a highly acclaimed expatriate artist that specialized in genre painting, mural decorations, and portraiture. Inspired by the Dutch Old Masters, he was best known for his simple and honest depictions of rural peasant life. His paintings can be found at the Detroit Institute of Art, National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

By Elliot Roberts

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Born in Detroit in 1860, Gari Melchers was the son of German-born sculptor Julius Theodore Melchers. At the early age of seventeen, his father sent him abroad to receive a formal education at the Royal Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf where he studied with Karl von Gebardt and Peter Janssen. In 1881 Melchers moved to Paris to continue his training at the Académie Julian with the renowned instructors Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. Not long after, Melchers began receiving recognition for his artistic talents. In 1882, his painting The Letter was exhibited at the Paris Salon. The work depicted an interior scene of two figures cast in natural light while reading a letter. Such treatment of subject and style was typical of the artist, as it became apparent that he was highly influenced by the aesthetics of contemporary German painters such as Max Liebermann and Fritz von Uhde; he also had a deep admiration for Dutch Old Masters.[1]

In 1884, Melchers moved to the artist colony of Egmond, Holland where he shared a studio with his friend George Hitchcock. Over the next thirty years, much of his time would be spent there, inspired by the simplicity of Dutch peasant life. However, it was his foray into religious scenes that earned him the attention of the Paris Salon of 1886, where he received honorable mention for The Sermon. In this painting, Melchers amusingly captures the dynamics of the seated parishioners as they “listen” to the preacher’s sermon at a local church. The artist’s preoccupation with contemporary religious scenes continued throughout this period. In 1889, Melchers was one of two artists honored with the Grand Prix at the Paris Salon for his work, The Communion. The honored artist was John Singer Sargent. Adding to such a distinction, Sargent and Melchers were the first Americans to be awarded the prize.[2]

Melchers’ travels throughout Europe and America during the 1880s and ‘90s brought him increased notoriety and opportunity. He was invited to participate in the mural program at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, as well as to serve on the International Board of Judges. Although he was ineligible for receiving awards due to his involvement in the Exposition, he exhibited seven paintings and received many portrait commissions as a result. His talents were further recognized in 1895 when he was commissioned to paint murals for the Library of Congress with subjects that recalled his works at the Columbian Exposition.[3]

In 1903 Melchers married Corinne Lawton Mackall, a young art student whom he had met in Egmond, Holland. She became one of his favorite subjects, sitting for many of his portraits. It was also during this later period of his career that Melchers began loosening his brushstroke and employing a bolder color palette. He continued to explore themes of peasant life, however his style shifted away from the direct realism that characterized his early work towards a more impressionistic manner.[4]

Melchers’ acclaim both in the United States and abroad continued through the turn of the century. In 1909, he was invited at the request of the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar to teach at the State Academy of Art in Weimar. Six years later, he returned to the US upon the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after his arrival, he purchased a country home in Falmouth, Virginia called The Belmont. His remaining years were spent at his country estate, although he also maintained a studio in New York and traveled for commissions. He became active in the art community, organizing art collections for the Telfair Academy in Savannah, serving on the Virginia Arts Commission, and contributing significantly to the acquisition of the John Gellatly collection for the National Collection of Fine Arts.[5] From 1920 to 1928, he served as President of the New Society of Artists as well as Chairman of the Federal Commission that founded the National Gallery of Art. In addition to this organizational work, he painted three ambitious murals for the Detroit Public Library, and four for the Jefferson City State House in Missouri during the 1920s. Melchers died in his Belmont home in 1932, and it continues to house the largest collection of his work and serves as a memorial to the artist.[6]

II. Chronology

1860 Born in Detroit, Michigan.
1877 Began training at the Royal Academy in Düsseldorf.
1881 Moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.
1882 The painting The Letter was accepted into the Paris Salon.
1884 Went to Egmond, Holland and shared a studio with George Hitchcock.
1886 Received honorable mention in the Paris Salon for The Sermon.
1889 One of two artists awarded the Grand Prix at the Paris Salon for The Communion. John Singer Sargent was also awarded this distinction the same year.
1893 Participated in the mural program at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.
1895 Commissioned to paint murals for the Library of Congress.
1903 Married Corrine Lawton Mackall (1880–1995).
1909–14 Professor of Painting at the State Academy of Art in Weimar .
1916 Purchased The Belmont as his home in Falmouth, Virginia near Fredericksburg.
1920–28 Served as President of the New Society of Artists.
1932 Died at his Belmont residence in Falmouth, Virginia.

III. Collections

Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Belmont, VA.
Carnegie Institute, PA
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington,. D.C.
Detroit Institute of Art, MAMI
Murals, Detroit Public Library, MI (murals)
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN
Murals, Missouri State Capitol, MO (murals)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Rhode Island School of Design, RI
St. Louis Museum, MO
Toronto Museum, Canada

IV. Exhibitions

1882–83, 1885–89 Paris Salon
1883–86 National Academy of Design
1883, 1890–1914, 1921–32 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1891 Art Institute of Chicago
1891, 1894–96, 1898–99 Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, Paris
1892 Art Club of Philadelphia
1901 Pan-American Exposition
1904 St. Louis Exposition
1907–32 Corcoran Gallery biennials
1926 Sesqui-Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia
1931 Maryland Institute
1990 St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art (retrospective)

V. Memberships

Associate Member, National Academy of Design (1904)
Academician, National Academy of Design (1906)
Paris Society of American Painters
Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris
International Society of Artists, London
Munich Secession
Berlin Royal Academy
National Institute of Arts and Letters
New Society Art
National Arts Club
American Federation of Arts
Hopkin Club
Scarab Club, Detroit, Michigan

VI. Notes

1. Doreen Bolger Burke, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born between 1846 and 1864 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980): 378–79.
2. Janice Oresman, “Gari Melchers’ Portraits of Mrs. George Hitchcock,” Archives of American Art Journal 20, no. 3 (1980): 21.
3. Ibid, 22.
4. Ibid, 23.
5. Ibid, 24.
6. Burke, 379.

VII. Suggested Resources

Burke, Doreen Bolger. American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born between 1846 and 1864. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980).

Dreiss, Joseph G. Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984).

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who was Who in American Art: 1564–1975. (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999).

Fink, Lois Marie. American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Gari Melchers, 1860-1932: American Painter. exh. cat. (New York: Graham Gallery, 1978).

Lesko, Diane and Esther Persson, eds. Gari Melchers: A Retrospective Exhibition. exh. cat. (St. Petersburg, Florida: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990).

Murray, Anne H. “Important, Early Melchers Painting Rediscovered,” American Art Journal 10, no.1 (May 1978): 110–111.

Oresman, Janice. “Gari Melchers’ Portraits of Mrs. George Hitchcock,” Archives of American Art Journal 20, no. 3 (1980): 19–24.

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