MELBA, Dame Nellie

Full-length, standing. Oil on canvas, 24” x 20”, signed and lower centre right ‘Muller-Ury 1908’.

Private Collection, London, UK

Jessica Dragonette; her husband Nicholas M. Turner; his second wife, Jacqueline Niego Turner; her gift to the present owner 2017.

Daily News, New York, Saturday, October 29, 1949 – ‘Broadway’ by Danton Walker.

Barbara Kruger Mackenzie and Thomas Findlay Mackenzie, Singers of Australia: from Melba to Sutherland, 1967, p.iv (reproduced in colour, but reversed, as painted in 1895 and ‘by permission from the original in the collection of Miss Jessica Dragonette.’)

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Dame Nellie Melba GBE, soprano, was born in Richmond, Victoria, Australia, on May 19, 1859 as Helen Porter Mitchell, the eldest of seven children of the builder David Mitchell and his wife Isabella Ann née Dow. Mitchell, a Scot, had emigrated to Australia in 1852, becoming a successful builder. Melba was taught to play the piano and first sang in public around age six. She studied singing with Mary Ellen Christian and Pietro Cecchi, an Italian tenor, who was a respected teacher in Melbourne. Her father encouraged her in her musical studies, but he strongly disapproved of her taking up singing as a career. She was only able to take up her singing career after the death of her mother in 1881 and her marriage to Captain Charles Armstrong in 1882. She took the pseudonym “Melba” from Melbourne her home town. She appeared in London in 1886, but went to Paris for further study with Mathilde Marchesi before she made her first stage appearance in Brussels in 1887, and subsequently sang in London in 1888, Paris in 1889, Russia in 1891, and Italy in 1892. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1893 and sang there during the seasons 1893-7, 1898-1901, 1904-5, 1910-11. Her repertoire was small; in her whole career she sang no more than 25 roles and was closely identified with only ten. She was known for her performances in French and Italian opera, but sang little German opera. But she had perfect pitch and had an almost seamlessly pure lyric soprano voice with effortless coloratura, a smooth legato and accurate intonation. In 1929 she returned for the last time to Europe and then visited Egypt, where she contracted a fever that she never entirely shook off. Her last performance was in London at a charity concert on 10 June 1930. She returned to Australia but died in Sydney on 23 February 1931, aged 69, of septicaemia which had developed after facial surgery in Europe some time before. She was the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician. Such was her fame that Melba Toasts and Pêche Melba were named after her by Escoffier.

Bibliography of sitter:

Nellie Melba, Melodies and Memories, London, 1921.

Joseph Wechsberg, Red Plush and Black Velvet: The Story of Dame Nellie Melba and her times, London, 1961

J. Hetherington, Melba, London, 1967.

This small picture is probably a sketch for an intended full-length. Muller-Ury may have gained access to Melba through her friendship with Lord Mount Stephen, but may only have had sittings for this sketch, and it may even have been painted in London as Melba was there in 1908. The canvas was originally larger and the painted surface has been folded over the stretcher cutting the bottom off the sitter’s dress. Furthermore the artist has over painted the darker background of the canvas and created an oval where Melba stands out more prominently. When he did this is unknown, but in 1943 he altered the background of the picture of Lina Cavalieri and other portraits, and he may have given the picture to Jessica Dragonette around then as in his diary for 1943 he says, as usual in Italian:

JUNE 2, 1943

N.Y. I do not see much of Jessica because she studies with Mr. Adolf Eshtron of 15 W. 67th St. and he thinks that she will be the greatest singer and certainly I think that with such exceptional talent and amazing intelligence and a spirited heart and sublime feeling she must succeed and will be better still than Melba whom she always admires deeply – but M. already had this magnificent voice and so naturally perfect.

According to a cutting from the New York Daily News, 1949, Jessica Dragonette ‘…is lending her portrait of Dame Nellie Melba to the Met for a season, after declining six offers to sell it.’ It seems she lent the picture for the October-May 1949 season as a letter, in the possession of the editor (gift of Nicholas Meredith Turner, 2007), from Mrs. O’Donnell Hoover of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, dated 7 September 1949, relays the acceptance of the offer and the thanks of the president, Lauder Greenway.