The American painter Gari Melchers' wife, Corinne, was famous 100 years ago for her kindness to the people of Falmouth during the holidays.
She gave presents and invited people to Belmont, the couple’s home in Falmouth, where she fed children cakes, bonbons, petit fours and hot cocoa, said Joanna Catron, the curator at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio.
“It was a lovely time to be a visitor here at Belmont. At Christmas time, the paperboy got a dollar bill. She made fruitcake for all the neighbors, spent a lot of time doing cards and making baked goods and delivering elderberry wine or strawberry wine that she made from her garden,” Catron said.
Corinne Melchers’ diary showed that her husband wasn’t all that thrilled about the holidays, but she was, Catron said.
“She said that he was very humbug about the holidays, but she was very into it,” Catron said.
Corinne Melchers’ diary also showed that she decorated the house with cut greenery and candles, so the staff at Belmont follows her lead today.
“We just take it upon ourselves to bring in the greenery. We’ve toned things down over the years. For a long time, we decorated it according to our 21st-century tastes,” Catron said. “Then we realized she wouldn’t have had all those sparkly miniature lights. It was just greens and bows. We’re trying to do it in what we think was the tradition of the Melchers.”
The staff at Belmont, where Gari Melchers lived with his wife from 1916 until he died in 1932, also know the kind of presents Corinne Melchers gave at Christmas.
“We have original presents that she gave to people at the holidays. Those presents have come back to us, so we’re able to show those as if Mrs. Melchers was wrapping them up to give them out,” Catron said. “It was a time of great festivity, and they always had house guests for the holiday, but things didn’t happen until Christmas Eve. It’s very different now.”
The estate will be decorated and open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and decorated for people to come and see during the holidays, Catron said.
“We will be ready the Friday after Thanksgiving.”
‘OVER THE GARDEN GATE’
There are also four paintings, including three that have never before been seen publicly at Belmont, that will be featured in the exhibition “Over the Garden Gate: Gari Melchers’ Falmouth” through Dec. 2.
“Gossips,” “Pear Tree in Blossom,” “Pot Hunters” and “Rainbow” are the paintings featured in the exhibit.
The pear tree Melchers painted was on the front lawn of his neighbor Samuel Gordon’s house that stood at the foot of the Falmouth Bridge looking toward the old general store, Catron said.
Melchers, who spent much of his time away from Belmont, found respite in Falmouth.
“One of the things he liked best about Virginia was the spectacular display of spring foliage. His neighborhood and the woods around his property were just choked with these beautiful blossoms,” Catron said. “He spent a good part of the year at his commercial headquarters in New York City, so to come home to Virginia was just an enormous treat, particularly in the spring.”
Melchers included part of the town in the pear tree painting, as he did in many of his paintings, which ranged from impressionism to realism.
“He’s not just looking at that pear tree, he’s looking at the architecture and the whole mood and tone and the slow life of an American small town,” Catron said.
“Gossips” shows a man and a woman chatting at a picket fence. The woman in the picture was probably Julia Payne, the mother of 10 or 11 children, whom Melchers often painted.
“Gari knew everybody in Falmouth. It was a little tiny village and he had always had an interest in painting the theme of the mother and child. He painted it in Holland. He painted it in Germany and France,” Catron said. “He came to America, and Julia became his favorite American mother.”
“Gossips” is set in front of Payne’s house, Catron said.
“It, too, is a beautiful springtime image. Her house had been slave quarters, so he’s looking for a distinctively American tone or inspiration. He wants to paint American small-town life,” Catron said.
In his painting “Pot Hunters,” Melchers shows his groundskeeper Mason Dillon and father-in-law Mr. Gibbs setting off to hunt some small game.
“They were pot hunters, meaning they weren’t going after big game. They were going after squirrel or rabbit, or whatever they can throw in a pot for a meal that night,” Catron said. “They’re just country blokes heading out of town to go looking in the backyards and fields that surround Falmouth to see what they can bring home.”
From his paintings, it’s clear that the people of Falmouth held Melchers in high regard. They let him into their homes to paint.
“Rainbow” is painted from the back door of a neighbor’s cottage a couple of doors down from Belmont on Washington Street, Catron said.
“It pictures some children playing in the backyard at a nearby well and beyond the slate roof of the house that’s pictured to the right is a rainbow up in the sky,” Catron said. “He sees the beauty of this little village and their lives. What he loved to paint, what made his heart sing, was to paint scenes of everyday life, ordinary people as they went about their business, at work, or worship, or play.”
Catron said people should get out to Belmont over the holidays and see the hidden gem in Falmouth, especially if they’ve never been before.
“If people are bored over the holidays, they must come. Especially if they want to get those darn relatives out of the house,” Catron said. “Our biggest driver, our biggest push is to introduce people to Melchers for the first time.”