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Gari Melchers: An American in Holland
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
An exquisite, rare and intimate show opens Saturday at Belmont in Stafford County.
“Glimpses of Holland From the Portfolios of Gari Melchers” is unlike anything seen before here, even if one is well-acquainted with the work of the Fredericksburg area’s best-known American impressionist.
This small but vibrant exhibition is as close you can get to standing and looking over the shoulder of this talented artist as he worked outdoors in the hazy, humid expanse of sky and water that is Holland, or inside its homes and churches.
Its 50 works, drawn from Belmont’s collection of Melchers’ sketchbooks and preliminary studies, reveal much about the man and his favorite subjects as he made a name for himself in the Netherlands in the last quarter of the 19th century.
“You get the sense that he is, literally, walking around from village to village in Holland and pulling his sketchbook out,” says Joanna D. Catron, curator of the national historic landmark. “These are really the births of paintings, the little seminal ideas.”
Visitors will see one of those sketchbooks, and some of the pencil and charcoal drawings that, in some cases, became the building blocks of much larger, finished art.
“One sketching ramble can give birth to four different paintings,” Catron explains during a fast-moving preview of the exhibit’s pieces.
In his sketchbooks, on cigar-box tops and watercolor paper, Melchers recorded countless details of the rural scenes and people he lived among on the North Sea coast: wooden shoes, windmills, sailors, children, mothers, plants, boats, farm fields, canals, sea, sky and scrawny goats in the dunes.
He might crib some elements and carry them over from sketch to sketch, changing one or two until he got a composition he liked.
The studies and sketches here show how Melchers would painstakingly gather and assemble this visual cornucopia until he arrived at something that clicked.
You’ll see an assemblage of details for what became “The Pilots,” one of the monumental, multifigural masterpieces that earned Detroit-born artist an international following.
They are fascinating.
“He’s just kinda working it out,” Catron explains.
Every object, every person, has its own little story.
In a group of coastal pilots stuck inside by bad weather, one man is smoking his pipe. One is building a ship’s model. Another is watching out the window. Another is nervously tapping his heel on the floor, thinking “Get me out of here, get me back on the water,” she says. “Melchers’ characterizations are really on the money.”
The finished oil painting, like “The Communion” and ”The Choirmaster,” blew people away.
“When you look at these paintings, you feel like you can almost step into them,” Catron says. “You want to touch these people; they’re that real. You can count every wrinkle. That’s what earned him his initial reputation.
“In order to be able to do that, Gari had to be constantly drawing, sketching, working on color studies.”
“Glimpses” lets you inside this creative process.
Which is a great gift, since Melchers was hardly forthcoming about his thoughts or techniques.
“He never wrote anything down,” Catron says. “He actually came out once and said, ‘I don’t like to talk about my work.’”
The exhibition also gives a vivid feeling for the remote, otherworldly place where Melchers and a friend from Rhode Island, artist George Hitchcock, set up shop.
Melchers’ fidelity to peasant life and Holland’s countryside, coupled with masterful ability, won acclaim.
Catron says: “That’s why a lot of people thought he was a native Dutch painter. All the critics in Paris, they thought, ‘Oh, he’s Dutch’—because his details were so authentic.”
Over his studio’s door, Melchers nailed a plaque declaring his artistic credo, “Waar en Klaar”—Dutch for “true and clear.”
And in European capitals and industrial-age America, admirers—including the Vanderbilts and Andrew Carnegie—clamored for more of his scenes of rustic naturalism.
For a while, Melchers and Hitchcock had it all to themselves: Egmond–aan–Zee and its two sister villages. Eventually, their success at depicting the pious working-class residents created an art colony along the seashore.
And what had begun as a summer visit turned into a career. Gari Melchers stayed for 20 years.
Belmont’s exhibition, in the estate’s Pavilion Gallery, provides a glimpse of this life as it passed by.
“It’s still moving,” the curator says, snapping her fingers. “You’re only going to see it for an instant.”
Melchers, a perfectionist, would never have exhibited most of these works, but many are arresting, enchanting, beautiful—full of life, mood and color.
“I think some of these pictures can stand on their own,” Catron said.
Well, go and see what you think.
But be sure to go.
What: “Glimpses of Holland From the Portfolios of Gari Melchers”
Where:Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, 224 Washington St., Falmouth
When: Sept. 1 through Nov. 18. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Wednesday. Cost: $10 general admission. Free to students, youths and Friends of Belmont
Info: 540/654-1015; garimelchers.org
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029