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Gari Melchers
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Falmouth, Virginia
An American artist who was primarily active in Europe before World War I, Gari Melchers achieved an international reputation as a painter and art instructor during his fifty-year career. Julius Garibaldi Melchers was born in Detroit in 1860. His father Julius Theodore Melchers (1829-1909) was a Prussian-born sculptor, primarily known for creating cigar-store Indians, who gave his son Gari early artistic training. Melchers entered the Düsseldorf Royal Academy of Art at age seventeen, studying under Peter Johann Theodor Janssen (1844-1908) and Eduard von Gebhardt (18838-1925). After four years, he moved to Paris to enter the École des Beaux-Arts and also the Académie Julian under Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1912) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888). In 1882 one of his paintings was accepted for exhibition in the Paris Salon. After a visit home to Detroit, Melchers joined the American painter George Hitchcock (1850-1913) in the Dutch village of Egmond aan Zee, on the coast near Alkmaar, where the two founded an art colony. Melchers specialized in painting scenes of daily life in rural Holland. His large painting The Sermon (1886, Washington: Smithsonian American Art Museum), depicting parishioners in a Dutch Reformed Church, won an honorable mention in the 1886 Paris Salon, followed by First Class Gold Medals in exhibitions in Amsterdam and Munich and a Grand Prize for American painting in the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle (the other Grand Prize going to an American was awarded to John Singer Sargent [1856-1925]). Melchers’s painting The Pilots (1887-88, Seattle: Frye Art Museum), showing five seafaring men in an office, was equally successful. He received two important mural commissions during the 1890s, two large lunettes for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition and in 1895 a mural for the then-new Library of Congress building. He was made a member of the French Legion of Honor and the Bavarian Order of St. Michael in 1895. He visited the United States frequently and established a lucrative portrait business; he would eventually paint some 150 portraits. He met his future wife, Corinne Lawton Mackall (1880-1955) while on a voyage across the Atlantic in 1902. She went to Egmond to study art under Hitchcock. Melchers later wooed her in Paris. After their marriage in 1903 they settled in Egmond, with his wife often serving as a model. Melchers’s painting style became more influenced by Impressionism after 1900, particularly in his interior scenes. Melchers continued to win medals and other awards in a variety of exhibitions. He was made an associate member of New York’s National Academy of Design in 1905 and a full member the following year, then a member of the Royal Prussian Order of the Red Eagle, the Belgian Royal Society of the Arts, and the Institute of France. He continued his portrait practice, painting the portraits of such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt (1908, Washington: Freer Gallery of Art). Melchers was appointed a professor at the Grand Ducal Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar, Germany in 1909 and taught there for five years. With the onset of World War I, he and his wife returned to America, first to New York City in 1915. The following year they bought Belmont, an eighteenth-century house and estate in Falmouth, Virginia, near Fredericksburg, where he lived for the rest of his life while maintaining a studio in New York City. In addition to painting portraits, landscapes and domestic scenes, Melchers painted murals for the Detroit Public Library (1921) and the Missouri State Capitol (1922). He served as chairman of the Smithsonian Commission to establish a national gallery of art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He served on the Virginia Arts Commission and as a trustee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. He continued to exhibit widely. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, that institution sponsored a solo exhibition of his works which opened shortly before his death at Belmont in 1932. (TNB 3/2015) Selected bibliography: Lesko, Diane and Esther Persson, eds. Gari Melchers: A Retrospective Exhibition. Exhibition catalog. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990. Reid, Richard S., ed. Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection. With an introduction by William H. Gerdts. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984.