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Destination: The Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont

by Elaine JeanSpecial to the Times

The Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, just across the Rappahannock River and outside the town of Fredericksburg, is a time capsule dedicated to the life and work of a multifaceted artist who once enjoyed international acclaim. A visit will properly acquaint you with him, and surely endear him to you.

The elegant-yet-homey country house, filled with his personal knickknacks and eclectic mix of furnishings, reveals much about Gari Melchers (1860-1932) and exudes warmth not typically associated with the period. His studio reveals even more about the talented American impressionist who explored several distinct styles throughout his career.

Not familiar with the work of Gari Melchers? Neither was I until recently, and that’s why this day trip feels a bit like a gift — a fitting analogy as Melchers’ widow, Corinne, deeded the estate to the commonwealth of Virginia in 1942 as a lasting tribute to her husband.

Gari Melchers’ talent was in the honest characterization of the everyday people around him, and his personal mantra was “true and clear.” He celebrated local villagers caught in their routine moments, both in the Dutch seaside community where he once resided and here, near Belmont.

He also painted the rich and famous — people with names like Vanderbilt, Mellon and Roosevelt. His work has timeless appeal for its depiction of a slice of life; Melchers was capturing real people on his canvas, whether famous or not. Unadorned and unplugged.

The best way to start the day is with the brief biographical video shown in the Visitors Center, where tickets may be purchased and a wealth of information is given away. Next, a tour of the couple’s 18th-century home brings their lives into focus.

As a docent leads you through each room, you’ll get to know Gari and Corinne Melchers through stories about their courtship, daily routines, marriage and partnership. And you’ll feel their presence through abundant signs of life — keys, books, reading glasses, a shaving kit and even Dutch clogs from Gari’s early days in Holland. It’s as if our hosts have just stepped out to visit the local pub.

Their personal art collection fills the walls, and anecdotes about these paintings have a certain entertainment factor. You quickly get the idea that Gari and Corinne Melchers were likeable, fun people.

But that’s not to say that Gari Melchers was not serious about his work. Those who knew him well described him as a man who, quite simply, lived to paint.

The artist’s devotion to his work is evidenced by a visit to the nearby studio building, which Melchers designed in 1924 to incorporate a dramatic window granting him that one essential ingredient: northern light.

Stepping into the studio allows you to enter his creative world. The drop-dead gorgeous setting is filled with Melchers’ original tools — worn and aged tubes of paint, varnish, pastels and brushes, as well as numerous paintings by the artist and his colleagues.

Of note is an unfinished painting, “From the Porch,” with a small practice piece next to it. The painting was probably in progress at the time of the artist’s death in 1932.

The studio and its two lower galleries showcase the span of Melchers’ career — from his beginning as a realistic painter, through the Dutch years, and to his celebrated period as an American impressionist.

Many of the paintings from his time at Belmont — when he walked the streets of Falmouth in white coveralls looking for subjects to paint — are on display. It is these paintings that made him famous in the art circles of both New York City and San Francisco.

Be sure to explore the grounds of the 27-acre retreat, where outbuildings include a spring house, smokehouse, cow barn and stable. Trails at Belmont lead through groomed gardens and along woodland walks, and a free map is available at the Visitors Center. Although the trip to the river is just 20 minutes, the terrain is uneven and proper footwear is recommended.

Finally, linger in the colorful, restored gardens on stone pathways that are lined with boxwood shrubs and trimmed with rose-covered arbors — the perfect place to ponder an artist who has almost been forgotten yet still has the power to delight.

Would Gari Melchers mind that his work no longer receives the recognition that it once did? I tend to doubt it. He woke up every day to witness the pastoral beauty of this retreat. He had found and married the love of his life. And every single day, he got to do what he loved most of all.

As the artist himself explained it, “Nothing matters in the world to the painter, but a good picture.”

Amy’s Café … Down By the River

Amy’s Café is found in a cozy 200-year-old brick building in Falmouth Bottom. This building and many others in the small village have changed little since Gari and Corrine Melchers lived at Belmont, and photos of their old ’hood line the walls.

Amy’s serves good old-fashioned breakfasts, soups, salads, appetizers and dinners, plus a decent array of beer and wine, and you’ll hear live acoustic music here on Saturday afternoons.

We stopped by for some loaded nachos, a couple of beers and a history lesson — learning that Amy’s is constructed mostly of ballast bricks from cargo ships, and that it has served as a tavern, a cotton warehouse and a general store.

With all those previous lives, I wondered aloud if the place was haunted. To that, our server quickly presented photographic evidence of paranormal activity at Amy’s.

Stop in for a bite, and see for yourself …

Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.