Gari Melchers was born Julius Garibaldi (after the Italian patriot) Melchers in Detroit on 11 August 1860, the son of a German immigrant Julius Theodore Melchers and his wife Marie Bangetor. The senior Melchers was himself an artist, having been trained in Paris as a sculptor. He contributed decorations to the Crystal Palace in London, created carved figures for City Hall in Detroit, and became a sought-after maker of cigar-store Indians.
Gari, one of his father's drawing students, showed talent at an early age and was encouraged to study abroad. Rather than send the impressionable young man to Paris, the popular destination for American students, his parents elected first to enroll him in the more conservative academy at Dusseldorf. Beginning in 1877, Melchers spent four industrious and productive years developing his skill at rendering detailed, tightly-finished drawings and paintings. After Germany, Melchers studied at the Academie Julian in Paris. His exposure to French art of the 1880s may have helped to lighten the darker palette that was part of his Dusseldorf training. Particularly influential to Melchers were painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), in whose paintings figures were bathed in a strong, overall light. From both French and German masters Melchers absorbed the then current predilection for depicting the nobility of the common folk--in his case sailors and fishermen as well as peasants and country maids.
Melchers' preference for scenes of rural life found its fullest expression when he took up residence in Holland, joining his American colleague George Hitchcock (1850-1913) at Egmond. Some of Melchers' best known images deal with religious aspects of the villagers' lives, as demonstrated in the various attitudes of the churchgoers in The Sermon (1886, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.), a painting which won honorable mention at the Paris Salon, or in his various representations of the "Mother and Child" theme. Even more concrete expressions of piety were his paintings which dealt literally with episodes in the life of Christ, often set in comtemporary Dutch interiors. Above the door of his studio in Egmond were inscribed the words "Waar en Klaar," True and Clear, an apt summary of the artist's aesthetic principles. Although his work would gradually undergo changes in both palette and brushwork, a fundamentally naturalistic approach remained at its heart and brought him continued success throughout his life.
Although he lived for more than twenty years in the small town on the edge of the North Sea, Melchers exhibited his work world-wide, gaining numerous honors and medals along the way. He was also commissioned to execute murals for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Missouri State Capitol, and the Library of Congress, for which he chose the somber subject of "The Arts of War". The artist and his wife were themselves touched by the vagaries of war when Melchers was forced to leave a teaching position at the Weimar Academy, held from 1909 until the eve of U.S. involvement in World War I. Upon returning to America in 1914, Melchers divided his time between a New York studio and his colonial-era house in the Virginia countryside, near Fredericksburg. A number of portrait commissions came his way at this time, including that of Andrew W. Mellon (1930, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Special Collection, 1953.11.1). Through the connection of his wife Corinne Lawton Mackall of Baltimore, Melchers was asked to serve as an advisor to the Telfair Academy, assisting with the acquisition of numerous works. He also served as chairman of the Smithsonian Institution commission on the formation of a national art museum (now the National Museum of American Art), and was active on the boards of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Affable and down-to-earth, Melchers was beloved of colleagues and country neighbors alike. While the latter often knew little about his work, the former celebrated his achievements in several one-man exhibitions. Eclectic in his awareness of Symbolist, Post-Impressionist, juste milieu, German religious painters, and individuals as varied as Hans Holbein and Mary Cassatt, he was not imitative of their efforts, but assimilated and transformed many aspects of their art into his own distinct and essentially conservative style. Melchers died at his home, Belmont, in Falmouth, Virginia on 30 November 1932. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Lewis-Hind, Henriette. Gari Melchers, Painter. New York, 1928.
Dreiss, Joseph G. Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection. Charlottesville, Virginia, 1984.
Stott, Annette. "American Painters Who Worked in the Netherlands, 1880-1914." Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1986.
Lesko, Diane. Gari Melchers: A Retrospective Exhibition. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1990.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 3-4.