Telfair Celebrates Major Painting Acquisition

VespersTelfair Museums announces the recent acquisition of an excellent example of the work of Gari Melchers, the highly-regarded American artist who served as the Telfair’s fine arts advisor from 1906-1916. Melchers’ Vespers, an image of a young Dutch woman seated in a church interior, is a stunning example of the kind of work that established Melchers as one of America’s most respected expatriate artists during the late 19th-century. The work was auctioned by Sotheby’s in Amsterdam on Tuesday, June 7.

Vespers portrays all the hallmarks of Melchers’ early work: rural Dutch subject matter, a vibrant and colorful palette, and an interest in decorative pattern and texture. It additionally conveys a sense of piety characteristic of much of Melchers’ work, in which the secular is often invested with a sacred sensibility. Melchers portrayed the Dutch villagers as hard-working, strong, and devout, and his pictures tapped into a nostalgic yearning for traditional rural life during a time of rapid industrialization.

Until the recent acquisition of Vespers, the Telfair held two very fine examples of Melchers’ own work-Madonna of the Fields, a gouache from the 1890s, and The Unpretentious Garden, an impressionist-style landscape from around 1910-as well as a couple of portraits.   In Vespers, the Telfair now has an exceptional and sizeable example of the highly finished oil paintings of rural Dutch subjects that earned Melchers widespread acclaim in his time.

The painting was originally owned by Walther Rathenau (1867-1922) of Berlin, an industrialist, writer, and politician who founded the German Democratic Party.   It is likely that Rathenau acquired the work at a major exhibition in Berlin in 1895, and the painting never made it to American shores.   After Rathenau was murdered by right-wing factions in 1922, the work was bequeathed to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt by Rathenau’s mother, and was later presented to the Walther Rathenau Gesellschaft, where it was acquired in 2009 by a collector who decided to auction it at Sotheby’s.

Vespers was acquired for the Telfair by the museum’s Gari Melchers Collectors’ Society, an auxiliary group established in 2005 to support the growth of the museum’s collection, and to encourage the enjoyment and appreciation of art.   The Society was named in honor of Melchers in recognition of his broad impact upon the museum’s collection, and his prescient eye and exceptional judgment.   Sensing the appropriateness of acquiring a work by the artist for whom the group was named, many Melchers Society members contributed additional funds to help secure the work. The success of the Telfair’s bid was also dependent on an extremely generous pledge from Dale and Lila Critz, whose participation allowed the museum to cast the winning bid. The Melchers Society made this purchase in honor of the Telfair’s former Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Holly Koons McCullough, who spearheaded the organization of the Melchers Society and served as a tireless advocate for the Telfair’s collections over her fifteen-year tenure at the museum.

Vespers is an important and appropriate tribute to Melchers’ legacy at the Telfair during the celebrations surrounding the museum’s 125th anniversary. The work occupied a place of honor in the exhibition Portraits to Pixels:   Celebrating 125 Years of Collecting at the Telfair, where it was installed as soon as it arrived from Amsterdam.

Gari Melchers

(American, 1860-1932)

Vespers, c. 1892

Oil on canvas, 47  ½ x 38  ¼ in.

Museum purchase in honor of Holly Koons McCullough with funds provided by the Gari Melchers Collectors’ Society and Dale and Lila Critz, 2011.9