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Baltimore native, artist husband sowed seeds for historic Virginia estate

Belmont is highlight of the state's 80th Historic Garden Week

By Barbara and Ken Beem, For The Baltimore Sun

12:31 PM EDT, April 18, 2013

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Visitors celebrating Virginia's 80th Historic Garden Week at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont might not immediately see a connection to Baltimore.

The American painter, known for his portraiture, hailed from Detroit. His home, recognized as a National Historic Landmark, is just outside Fredericksburg, Va.

It is Melchers' wife, Corinne, who provides the link. Born into a socially prominent Baltimore family in 1880, she married the middle-aged Melchers when she was in her 20s.

So what was a nice Baltimore girl doing in Falmouth, Va.? And why, after all these years, is Corinne Melchers' name still associated with that state's Garden Week? It must have been love: Love of art, love of beauty and, most importantly, love of her husband.

This year, Historic Garden Week will feature about 200 homes and gardens on 32 individual tours. Actually an eight-day event, the springtime fundraiser for the Garden Club of Virginia, is the largest continuing volunteer effort in the state, drawing on the talents of some 3,400 club members.

Back in 1933, Corinne Melchers was one such volunteer when she opened the doors to her home at Belmont for that first garden tour.

"We are celebrating the Garden Club's 80th anniversary this year by featuring homes that were opened 80 years ago, including Belmont," said Victoria Willis, chair of the Fredericksburg Garden Club.

Today, Belmont remains a tribute to Gari Melchers' career as an influential artist, Corinne's faithful efforts to honor his achievement, and their devotion to each other. And come April 23, their house and grounds will once again be a highlight of Garden Week. How Corinne got there remains a sweet love story.

Shipboard romance

Born Corinne Lawton Mackall, she was a well-traveled and mature young woman who was determined to support herself as an artist. To this end, she established a studio on North Charles Street and enrolled at the Maryland Institute Practical School for the Mechanic Arts, now the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"While a student there, she embarked on a tour of Europe with her mother and younger brother," said Michelle Crow-Dolby, education and communications manager for the Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont.

According to the story told in the couple's journals, letters and documents, they were sailing on the S.S. Aller in April 1902, when Corinne learned that one of her fellow passengers was Melchers, an artist whose work she much admired. Not quite by accident, the pair met on board. Corinne, at age 22, declared him more interesting-looking in person than he appeared in photographs; as for 41-year-old Gari, he was smitten.

Melchers had studied in Europe as a young man and was internationally known for his art, especially his work in portraiture. Hoping to see more of Corinne, he suggested that she travel to Holland to study at an art colony he had helped found in Egmond aan Zee. She heeded his advice, and later, when she continued on to Paris for further study, he followed her. After a whirlwind courtship, the two were engaged to be married on New Year's Eve, and they exchanged vows in a small Anglican church on the Isle of Jersey on April 14, 1903.

Archival records show the couple settled for a while in Holland and then Germany, traveling the Continent until the onset of World War I.

Returning to the United States, they settled in Virginia's Stafford County. In 1916, they purchased an 18th-century Georgian-style frame house in the small village of Falmouth, perched on a ridge just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. Although the house had been enlarged over the years, it was now in poor repair. They called their new home their "country house."

Love and art

The Melchers lived a life of domestic bliss and quickly blended in with the comings and goings of their adopted hometown. Since Gari Melchers had never experienced a "starving artist" period; consequently, the pair enjoyed the comforts of financial security.

Belmont was raised to new heights during their tenancy. The couple made considerable architectural improvements, including the addition of a hexagonal sunporch and a stone artist's studio. They decorated their home with treasures purchased during their travels, as well as pieces of artwork they had collected over the years.

Gari maintained a studio on the grounds of Belmont, as well as one in New York City. He frequently traveled to Washington, where he was instrumental in the formation of the National Gallery of Art. Corinne dabbled in art, but she mainly filled her days as lady of the manor and as an active volunteer in the community. She was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as a founder of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which still owns one of her oil paintings.

"By all accounts, Corinne and Gari enjoyed a marriage of love and art," said Crow-Dolby, noting that when writing to her during his frequent travels, Gari addressed his wife as "My darling Corinne" and closed his frequent correspondence to her with "I kiss you with all my heart, with love, Gari."

An avid gardener, Corinne was a member-at-large of the Garden Club of Virginia and a founding member of the Rappahannock Valley Garden Club. She was integral to the restoration of the grounds at the nearby Kenmore estate in Fredericksburg, which will also be included on this year's tour, Crow-Dolby said. Most significantly, though, she worked to ensure that the gardens of Belmont would be worthy of their elegant home.

Corinne recorded in her daily diary her efforts to make sure their shared country retreat at Belmont provided the flowering vistas, fresh fruit and cream that her husband loved.

"She also supported him by stretching frames, arranging for models and even posing for him," said Crow-Dolby. "At Belmont, the couple, drawn together by their love and art, embraced the pastoral life that provided them with both respite and artistic inspiration."

When they purchased the 28-acre property, there was a terrace below the house. The Melchers added walls, gates and statuary to the existing garden, in addition to a cow barn, a wooden garage with hayloft and a stone garage. Among the flowers planted on the property were perennials such as sedum, iris, and peonies; daffodil, tulip, and hyacinth bulbs; and cosmos, hollyhocks, zinnias, ageratum, geranium, verbena, cleome and a multitude of roses. Corinne also oversaw the creation of a winding path in a grove, which now constitutes one of the several nature paths available for hiking on the property year round.

In 1932, Gari Melchers died of a heart attack, and his wife began her efforts to preserve the home she had shared with her husband. She died there in 1955, and her ashes were commingled with his in a repository built into the wall of his Belmont studio.

"After Gari's death, Corinne spent the rest of her years making sure his memory and art were preserved," said Crow-Dolby. "She bequeathed the entire Belmont estate to the Commonwealth of Virginia, creating one of the most significant and best-preserved artists' homes and studios in the country."

Because Corinne saved nearly everything, today's visitors to Belmont get a very real sense of the life these two artists shared. Personal effects belonging to her and her husband are on exhibit. On the walls hang several pictures that she painted during their time together, including a poignant portrait of the man she always called "my artist." She, in turn, also served as a model of tranquil domesticity for her husband, as evidenced in his works on display in the gallery adjoining his studio.

But Corinne's most important contribution was that of keeping her husband's work accessible to all. "Without her efforts, Belmont's future would certainly have been different," Crow-Dolby said.

Throughout his career, Gari Melchers emphasized his interest in painting "good pictures." While a young artist in Holland, he placed a sign over his studio door, "waar en klaar," or "true and clear," words by which he lived, loved, and painted. And thanks to the devotion of that young Baltimore girl on the ocean liner, new generations of art lovers and romantics continue to appreciate his talent today.