The artist Gari Melchers may not exactly be a household name these days, but he was an exceedingly accomplished and successful painter in his time and is certainly deserving of more attention than he’s received since his death nearly a century ago. “One Hundred Years of Harmony: Paintings by Gari Melchers,” which opens at Aug. 26 the Jepson Center, is a chance to sample some of this peripatetic painter’s work and learn more about his life and his contributions to Telfair’s own collection.
Born in 1860 in Detroit, Melchers’ early life was steeped in art, due in no small part to his German-born father, who was a sculptor and woodcarver. At 17, Melchers traveled to Germany to study at the Arts Academy in Düsseldorf, then a few years later embarked to Paris to study at Ecole de Beaux-Arts. He then relocated to Holland, where he established an art colony with his friend and fellow American artist George Hitchcock. He eventually returned to the States, where he spent his final years with his wife Corinne at his 27-acre Belmont Estate in Virginia, where his home and studio still stand (Melchers died in 1932).
Throughout his career, Melchers traveled across Europe, winning accolades for his work and exhibiting alongside luminaries such as John Singer Sargent. He also spent time in the U.S. fraternizing with the art cognoscenti in cities like New York, but it was his wife Corinne who provided the critical Savannah connection.
Melchers married Corinne Mackall in 1903. She was 20 years his junior and an aspiring art student at the time. Her uncle was president of Telfair and eventually asked if Melchers would be interested in becoming an adviser to the museum, which he accepted in 1906. Over the following 10 years, Melchers would go on to acquire some of the Telfair’s most beloved holdings, and in fact most all of the art Telfair purchased during that period was facilitated through Melchers.
“One Hundred Years of Harmony” represents the 100th anniversary of the end of Melchers’ tenure and also the anniversary of Telfair’s purchase of Melchers’ “The Unpretentious Garden,” one of his most admired works.
Courtney McNeil, Telfair’s chief curator of collections and exhibitions, has been laboring on the exhibition for a number of years and says the “small, jewel-like” show of Melchers’ “luminous works” represented in “One Hundred Years of Harmony” is a near-perfect reflection of the artist’s vision.
“To celebrate Melchers and to celebrate our acquisition ... I put together this really focused show looking at these images of domestic harmony that Melchers worked on from the first painting to be accepted to the Paris Salon, to the last painting he completed before his death ...
“It’s a wonderful exploration of an American artist in the early decades of the 20th century. He was exploring this theme of domestic harmony, both with exterior views and layered interior scenes in a way that showcases the full range of his talents, range of style and color pallets.”
Viewers who were able to catch “Monet and American Impressionism” at the Jepson last year may be familiar with Melchers from his inclusion there, though the current exhibition brings Melchers’ refined artistic vision to the fore, if only with a handful of representative works.
“He was very well-known for having a really nice, gentlemanly temperament,” McNeil says. “He got along with everybody and was very genial and collegial ... He also had an amazing eye.”
This explains why Melchers was able to acquire so many exceptional works for Telfair as he hobnobbed with the European and American elites. Given his talent, temperament and awards won throughout his life, one wonders why Melchers’ name hasn’t endured like many of his contemporaries. McNeil feels it was likely due to the fact that he was never part of the avant-garde as artists like Monet were. Though he was a practitioner of Impressionism, Melchers was a perfector of his craft, not a trailblazer.
Now Savannah has an opportunity to revisit an exceptionally talented painter who is long overdue a second look.
IF YOU GO
What: “One Hundred Years of Harmony: Paintings by Gari Melchers”
When: Aug. 25-Dec. 11; opening lecture is 6 p.m. Aug. 25
Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.