By Megan Eichenberg
Had Frances Benjamin Johnston been a student at the UMW, she might have filled her class schedule with art and photography courses.
But Johnston pursued her academic education during the 1880s at the Academie Julian in Paris many years before UMW opened its gates as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women in 1908.
Nineteen years later, after abandoning a career in illustration to become a photojournalist, Johnston’s link to UMW developed when a local couple privately funded her photographic survey of Fredericksburg in 1927.
Nearly 250 images of area buildings, residences and gardens resulted from her lens work, including shots featuring Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont.
Belmont, which opened to the public in 1975 under the administration of UMW, is currently hosting a new exhibition featuring the photographer’s images.
“Belmont Through a Lens: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston,” is a display of 18 historic photos of the country house and its 28-acres.
Belmont is the former residence of impressionist painter Gari Melchers and his wife, Corinne, who purchased the property in 1916.
Described on an exhibit information sheet as a pioneer of early twentieth-century photography as a woman in a role typically reserved for men, Johnston’s portfolio included celebrity portraiture, estates and gardens and the vernacular architecture of the American South.
The latter three subjects are on display in Johnston’s snapshots of Belmont, which feature exterior shots of the house from several angles, interior shots of its furnished rooms and the property’s gardens.
In 1929, the full collection of Johnston’s photographic survey of Fredericksburg was displayed in Fredericksburg’s Town Hall.
An introductory film that precedes complete tours of Belmont and its four-gallery studio outlines the couple’s history and Melcher’s art, which is featured in such institutions as the Library Of Congress, Detroit Public Library and Missouri State Capital.
Melchers. a Detroit native, studied drawing and painting in Germany before moving to Paris at the age of 21 in 1881.
At the beginning of his career, his paintings focused on the daily life of rural peasants.
He was a grand prizewinner at the Universal Exposition in Paris, garnering him an international reputation. Several major award and medal wins followed.
After his marriage to Corinne, his focus shifted to domestic scenes of middle class women and children.
The couple decided to move to the United States with the advent of World War I, setting up a studio in New York City.
They also purchased Belmont, decorating its room with antiques and furniture from their former life in Europe, where Melchers had been a professor of art at the Ducal Academy of Art in Weimar, Germany.
Melchers constructed a studio and gallery adjacent to the house in 1924, which now houses exhibits of his paintings and special shows, including “Belmont Through a Lens.”
Ten years after Gari’s death in 1932, Corinne deeded the property and its furnishings to the state of Virginia as a memorial to her husband and his art.
Today, the house and studio remain intact with the couple’s original possessions and artwork to reflect the estate’s appearance of the 1920s, offering modern day visitors the chance to explore the same colorful environment depicted in Johnston’s historic black and white photographs.
Johnston’s images also are on display for the public through the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center’s exhibition, “History Through a Lens: The Photographs of Frances Benjamin Johnston,” which runs concurrently with the Belmont exhibition through June 20.
Belmont offers current UMW staff and students free admission, while the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center offers students discounted admission with student identification.
Visitors to either exhibit may present their admission ticket at the other exhibit to receive discounted entry.