The picturesque home, galleries and rose gardens of a relatively unknown artist and his wife provide an aesthetic destination in an area marked by Civil War battlefields.
Belmont, an 18th-century, Georgian-style mansion on 27 acres on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Falmouth, Va., is a memorial to its former owner Gari Melchers, who with his wife, Corinne, bought the property in 1916.
Museums around the world own Melchers' works; he painted portraits of subjects with names such as Vanderbilt and Roosevelt; and his murals cover the walls of the Library of Congress and the Missouri State Capitol.
Belmont's visitors center is in the former carriage house, where a video tells visitors about Melchers and his art.
Julius Garibaldi Melchers was born in Detroit in 1860, the son of a German immigrant sculptor. The younger Melchers showed talent in his father's drawing classes and was sent, at age 17, to study in Dusseldorf, Germany. The curriculum at the Royal Prussian Academy of Art stressed figure painting characterized by realism and the finish of the Old Masters, training that formed the basis of Melchers' style. After studying in Paris, the artist set up studios in Holland, France, Germany and New York before he and Corinne Melchers settled at Belmont.
Taste for objective art had dimmed by Gari Melchers' death in 1932, Belmont curator Joanna Catron said, and while he is not well-known today, renewed interest in American realism is helping to revive his stature.
Melchers painted at a stone studio, built at Belmont in 1924, that houses the largest repository of his work, Catron said.
"We have about 1,600 items, from sketches to full-blown easel paintings," she said. The studio room contains Melchers' brushes, paints, smock and props he used.
Two adjoining galleries show Melchers' most important paintings and are the site of exhibits of art from his era.
The central part of the house dates to the 1790s. During the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac occupied much of Falmouth. Soldiers camped on either side of the house in late 1862, Catron said.
Today, the house is furnished with antiques and art collected by the Melcherses, including a Dutch rococo secretary and a French Savonnerie carpet. The walls are decorated with paintings and prints by Gari Melchers, his European and U.S. contemporaries, and Corinne Melchers, who studied at what now is the Maryland Institute College of Art. (Her cousin Robert McGill Mackall was a Baltimore stained-glass artist and muralist who painted Maryland's heroes in the War Memorial building.)
The Melcherses built a hexagonal sun porch at Belmont, restored the garden and added walls, gates and statuary. A stone summer house at the south end of the garden overlooks the Rappahannock.
Near the summer house is the Long Walk, a boxwood-lined walkway leading to a terrace below the house. The walk was restored in 1993 by cutting back the boxwoods and rebuilding rose arbors at each end.
Corinne Melchers had a large collection of roses. Twenty-eight varieties have been replanted on the property, and the staff is searching for roses that the Melcherses owned, Catron said, adding that "some of the older varieties are hard to find." Belmont's annual rose tour is well-attended, she said.
"Virginia is a very strong gardening state. We have a multitude of tours," Catron said. "Because Mrs. Melchers was a rosarian, we don't have a problem filling that tour."
Falmouth, about 100 miles from Baltimore, borders Fredericksburg, George Washington's boyhood home and the scene of violent battles between 1861 and 1865. More than 100,000 troops died in Fredericksburg, the site of Washington family homes and museums and annual battle re-enactments.
Belmont's art and tranquil setting make it "different. It isn't George Washington or the Civil War," Catron said.
Belmont is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, March 1 to Nov. 30; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 1 to Feb. 28; closed Jan. 1, Thanksgiving, Dec. 24, 25, 31. Information: 540-654-1015 or mwc.edu/belm.
Where to eat
Restaurants in nearby Fredericksburg's historic district include:
Basil's Italian Market and Pizzeria (909 Caroline St., 540-899-5414): Salads, sandwiches and pizzas.
Brock's Riverside Grill (503 Sophia St., 540-370-1820): Chicken, seafood, beef and pasta dishes; view overlooks Rappahannock River.
Jake and Mike's (806 William St., 540-370-4590): Sophisticated American cuisine.
Merriman's (715 Caroline St., 540-371-7723): Steaks, seafood, vegetarian dishes.
From Interstate 95, take Falmouth-Warrenton Exit 133A. Follow U.S. 17 (toward Falmouth) 1.25 miles to Route 1001 (Washington Street, before flashing light); turn right to Belmont.
For more regional trips, see Page 37.