Julius Theodore Melchers

 

Melchers was the most accomplished and influential commercial carver working in the American Midwest during the second half of the nineteenth century. Born in Prussia, wherehe apprenticed to a master woodcarver, Melchers later studied in Paris before immigrating to Detroit in 1852. A teacher as well as a sculptor, Melchers’ knowledge of European fine art traditions and his experience as an artist made him a leading figure in Detroit’s fledgling artistic community.With little demand in Detroit for fine art sculpture, and even fewer collectors, Melchers opened a commercial carving studio that completed commissions for clients inDetroit, elsewhere in the Midwest, and in Ontario, Canada. Despite completing church commissions and carving the interior decoration for the main office of the HiramWalker & Sons distillery in Windsor, Ontario, it is for his tobacconist figures that Melchers is best remembered today.Carved figures had been associated with tobacco shops since the seventeenth century, with the earliest American examples appearing during the 1700s. The marketfor tobacconist figures flourished after 1850 as the popularity of cigar smoking swept the nation. From New York, the center of tobacconist-figure carving, to the upper Midwest, carvers created figures to serve as sidewalk advertisements for tobacco shops. Most carvers learned their craft by serving an apprenticeship with a master.The carving techniques they used, as well as the aesthetic they followed, were time-honored and passed from generation to generation. As a result, the quality of thework produced by these commercial carvers, in the majority of cases, places them outside of the folk tradition.Melchers, like other carvers, offered many different tobacconist figures, but the most popular was the Native American. Unlike other carvers of “cigar-storeIndians,” however, whose knowledge of their appearance and costume came secondhand, Melchers was an earnest student of Native American material culture. Heamassed what was considered the finest collection of Native American artifacts in Michigan, having purchased the collection assembled by Gen. David S.Stanley(1828–1902), who had explored the Yellowstone area in 1873. Melchers used his collection as source material for his carvings. Using old ships’ masts, whoseseasoned, straight-grained wood eliminated the danger of cracking that mars many carvings by others, Melchers endowed his sculptures of Native Americans with averisimilitude that few other carvers achieved. Authentically garbed and sensitively portrayed, Melchers’ figures show the hand of an artist trained in the classicaltradition who elevated his distinctive style of commercial carving to art.