Lake Area author entranced by early images of refined ladies' lives By Deborah Wolfe, The Lake Today
THE LAKE TODAY: DEBORAH WOLFE Lake Area writer and artist Robert Mellberg flips through “A Book of Sweethearts,” the first book of his “American Girl” portraits, which inspired his new book. One can almost hear the rustle of a lace crinoline as it brushes against a satin sheath, echoing through the halls of Robert Mellberg's Lake Area abode. A bevy of beauties welcomes visitors to the home office where they peer out from under bouquets of flowers, spilling over the edge of wide-brimmed hats. From their frames upon the walls, these demure ladies personify a "once upon a time" ideal of American femininity and over 40 years of passionate exploration in search of the fairest of them all. "This is what started it all," Mellberg said, gingerly turning the pages of a time-worn book. "I found this at a rummage, and I was hooked the moment I opened it. "Published in 1908, the filigree-framed pages of "A Book of Sweethearts" feature illustrations of a class of sleek and fashionable young women who won the affections of the entire nation beginning in the late 1800s. Predecessors of the Gibson Girls created by Charles Gibson, the American Girl portraits, illustrated by Harrison Fisher and reflected in the works of renowned artists including Howard Chandler Christy, Neysa McMein and Cole Phillips' "fadeaway girls," graced the covers of the era's high society magazines. Lithe and elegant with soft hair piled high into chignons, these feminine role models graced the covers of Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, The Ladies' Home Journal, McClure's Magazine, Life and the Saturday Evening Post. Mischievous grins added a hint of mystery to the ladylike poses portrayed with pen and ink and watercolor renderings. Mellberg became entranced by the talented artisans who meticulously painted the details of these refined ladies' lives. "I was in college studying architecture at the time," Mellberg said of his initial attraction. "But I recognized the incredible talent of the artists that created the images." Thus began a journey that spanned more than four decades and culminated in Mellberg's soon-to-be released 250-page tribute to the art titled, "A Grandfather's Dream of Fair Women." Currently in the final stage of editing, the book includes full color illustrations by 23 American Girl-inspired artists, a fraction of the nearly 10,000 works in his collection. "I appreciated the artistic aspect immediately," Mellberg said. "Christy spent eight months researching his subjects and two years on a painting. They truly are masterpieces." Taken from Fisher's book "A Dream of Fair Women," Mellberg changed the title to reflect his personal evolution over the course of his research.