By CLINT SCHEMMER

If you can swing it, this might be the perfect time for a jaunt to Savannah.

America's first planned city, Georgia's Colonial capital, is hosting a once-in-a-lifetime art exhibit that will knock your socks off.

"American Artists In Holland, 1880-1914," at the Telfair Museum of Art, pays homage to an artistic movement that spawned hundreds of breathtaking canvases and fomented the mass excitement of the United States' "Holland mania."

The exhibit, the first of its kind in North America, has strong ties to the Fredericksburg area. It includes more paintings--nine--by Gari Melchers, the American impressionist who lived at Belmont in Stafford County, than by any other artist, according to Joanna D. Catron, curator at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio in Falmouth. The Stafford museum loaned three works--by Melchers, George Hitchcock and Walter MacEwen--to the show.

"Melchers is an artist whose reputation was long ago thought to be eclipsed, and suddenly here he is as the star attraction of a major art historical study and exhibition," Catron said yesterday. "What does that tell you? Tastes are certainly fickle, but masterpieces endure."

Melchers' life was intertwined with that of the Savannah museum through Corinne Lawton Mackall, the young art student with whom he fell in love, beginning on a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1902.

Mackall married Melchers the following year. Her mother's family were prominent Savannahians. Her uncle was Alexander Rudolph Lawton, president of the Telfair's board of managers. In 1905, when the museum's first director died, Lawton asked Melchers to buy art for the Telfair. He did so, officially, from 1906 to 1916 and unofficially until 1930.

But "Dutch Utopia" would surely cheer the Melchers for other reasons: its sheer scope, its tribute to a movement of which Gari Melchers was an integral part, and its recollection of the time when the newlyweds had set up housekeeping in a North Holland village.

While living there, Gari Melchers acquired work for the Telfair's permanent collection. A number of those works by American artists working in Holland form the exhibit's heart.

A GRAND EXHIBIT

This sweeping and important show at the South's oldest art museum focuses on 43 American painters, drawing 73 works from 30 museums in the U.S. and some 20 in Europe.

Nearly five years in the making, the exhibition--organized by the Telfair Museum of Art in association with the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands--is the Telfair's most ambitious to date, and its first traveling one bound for Europe.

MEET THE ARTISTS

Most notably, it is the first modern exploration of American artists working in Holland between 1880 and the start of World War I, whose work won honors in the international salons of the day. They included such distinguished artists as John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase--and then-admired but now-eclipsed painters such as Melchers, George Hitchcock, Elizabeth Nourse, George Boughton and Walter MacEwen. (The former two men created an art colony in the Egmonds, a group of villages on the North Sea.)

These artists, who numbered more than a hundred and included a remarkable number of women, sought to emulate the Dutch Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. Early works done by Melchers as a member of this loose-knit group sealed his global reputation. In fact, many of the artists won awards in the international exhibitions of the time.

CELEBRATING THE BUCOLIC

Inspired by Holland's rural landscape and 17th-century Dutch art, they created visions imbued with nostalgia and a yearning for a simpler, less socially fragmented, pre-industrial age.

Alluding to America's colonial Dutch heritage, these artists' output celebrates the beauty of farms, flowers, seascapes, peasant garb, church rituals and a village life that, even then, was vanishing rapidly. Hence the exhibition's title.

Their work had lasting effects. Students of Melchers' colleague George Hitchcock codified his thinking on color and established schools in the U.S. which taught that theory. It became part of modernism.

AN EXHIBIT IS BORN

Holly Koons McCullough, the Telfair's chief curator of arts and exhibitions, came up with the idea for the show in 2005 while working on the museum's collection catalogue. She realized no exhibition had been done on "the Egmond School," of which Melchers was a leader.

McCullough turned to Dr. Annette Stott, an art history scholar at the University of Denver who'd published a book on the topic. They collaborated on the show's handsome, full-color, 288-page hardcover catalog. (Melchers' painting "The Sisters," owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is featured on its cover.) There's an online audio tour, too.

If you go, don't miss the complementary exhibit on MacEwen, a hugely talented Melchers friend and fellow expatriate who was also close with James McNeill Whistler.

"Dutch Utopia" will travel next year to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, and the Singer Laren Museum.

telfair.org tinyurl.com/melcherstelfair tinyurl.com/dutchaudiotour tinyurl.com/macewen garimelchers.org

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

Email: cschemmer@freelancestar.com

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