Baltimore native, artist husband sowed seeds for historic Virginia estate

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

  • Corinne Melchers was an avid gardener and worked hard to bring the grounds of Belmont to life. This view of the property faces the bluff that overlooks the Rappahannock River.
Corinne Melchers was an avid gardener and worked hard to bring… (Gari Melchers Home and Studio…)
April 18, 2013|By Barbara and Ken Beem, For The Baltimore Sun

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.

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