Belmont, home to the Gari Melchers Home and Studio, has been a source of inspiration for generations.
For curator Joanna Catron, that inspiration extends to all manner of artists, from children and amateurs to the famous, from painters and dancers to poets and sculptors. She has seen seasons come in and out there with new visitors inspired by the picturesque landscape and impressionist Gari Melchers, whose paintings hang at his home and studio in Falmouth.
And Belmont is open—to inspire, or just to visit—once again. On March 15, the museum reopened for regular hours, a year after shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you are not particularly artistically inclined, the peace and beauty of the property and its treasures can still be a haven, a place of transformation and respite for all, as our patroness, Mrs. Gari Melchers, intended, so we are extremely happy to be open again,” Catron said.
Along with the return to daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. hours, the museum is opening its latest exhibit, “Beauty in the Rough: Preliminary Sketches and Drawings by Gari Melchers,” which explores Melchers’ process from the conception of an idea through to the final, finished painting. The exhibit runs until June.
“We have the luxury of having the largest collection of his works anywhere—not just finished easel paintings but hundreds of sketches and studies,” Catron said. “Many of the sketches are just concepts he experimented with but didn’t necessarily develop beyond that, while others led to finished works, even additional related works that enabled him to increase his income potential.”
Seeing the 14 preliminary works that are exhibited, paired with reproduced images in the final paintings, is like looking over the artist’s shoulder. The exhibit provides the public a glimpse of Melchers’ thought processes and methodology. Several of the pieces have never been on view before.
Catron said they like to take advantage of their wealth of sketches and studies and often put them on display for the general interest of guests, “who surprisingly, find the painter’s creative process new to their own experiences,” and it also caters to the interests of visiting artists.
What “Beauty in the Rough” shows is that there is no one or right way, according to Catron. And it displays Melchers’ fertile imagination. Sometimes one idea could generate multiple concepts.
“That the creative process is open to all and most effective with the absolute freedom of expression,” she said.
Even though the museum and grounds have reopened to the public, they are strictly observing protocols to protect staff and the public, said communications manager Michelle Crow–Dolby. Tour sizes are limited for the time being and there is no introductory video, which requires people to gather in a small, enclosed space. Masks are required indoors, and hand sanitizing stations are available throughout the property.
In April, she said, the museum will resume its popular Preschool Palette program and its woodland hikes.
The museum and property originally shut down mid-March, a year ago. As soon as they could, staff started offering virtual content. Some of that content was simply recorded on their cellphones. But a Community Foundation grant made a virtual 3D tour possible. And according to Crow–Dolby, the need for online content allowed them to build a library of free videos, which are still available on their YouTube channel.
One of those virtual events was a recorded Zoom panel about a painting by Melchers that had been stolen by Nazis and was returned its rightful owners by the FBI. She said they would not have considered holding this panel of experts pre-pandemic because of the cost of flying them in. But the online-first way of thinking allowed them to offer the program.
The museum is still hosting enriching online events. This Thursday at noon, art conservator Perry Hurt will give a talk about his work on “Portrait of a Young Girl with Fan,” a 1626 painting attributed to Wybrand de Geest that was in the Melchers’ personal collection.
Along with the museum and its trove of artistic works, the grounds, Museum Shop and Stafford County Visitor Center located there are open daily until 5 p.m. The daffodils are up, and so are the crocuses. The trees have just sprouted their first leaves of early spring, so visitors can appreciate the built environment of the Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, and the property’s view of the Rappahannock River and of the Fredericksburg cityscape. As always, it’s inspiring.