by Jeffrey Andersen, Director of the Florence Griswold Museum
During the first two decades of the 20th century, the village of Old Lyme, Connecticut, was the setting for one of the largest and most significant art colonies in America. Centered in the boardinghouse of Miss Florence Griswold, the colony attracted many leading artists — Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, and Willard Metcalf among them — who were in the vanguard of the Tonalist and Impressionist movements. Drawn to Old Lyme by its natural beauty, they discovered an “old” New England setting that was, as one observer noted, “expressive of the quiet dignity of other days.” Here was a country retreat where, as Metcalf put it, “every day is so in line with work.” Interacting with each other and with the community, the artists of the colony produced an impressive body of work, which achieved renown in its day and still calls attention to the enduring – and fragile — qualities of the rural New England landscape.
From its beginnings in 1899, the Lyme Art Colony was shaped by a strongly held group identity. Calling themselves the “School of Lyme,” the first artists who came, at the urging of the colony’s founder Henry Ward Ranger, believed they were forming a new school of painting in America. In the ensuing years, as more artists came and went, the colony’s stylistic focus shifted from Tonalism to Impressionism, but its identity as an artists’ colony held fast and grew in reputation. The constant behind this was the central figure of Florence Griswold (1850-1937), affectionately referred to as “Miss Florence” and often described as the colony’s “patron saint” or “mistress.”
Her efforts to nurture and sustain the colony can hardly be overstated, but she was aided immeasurably by a small circle of artists who chose Lyme as their place of permanent residence. Working together, they fanned the colony’s flames and produced two firsts: the birthplace of the “summer annual” exhibition in America and the opening of the country’s first artist-financed cooperative gallery. Both innovations would later become regular features at such artist communities as Woodstock, Provincetown, Taos, Ogunquit, Laguna Beach, and Carmel.
The physical and emotional locus for the Lyme Art Colony was the home of Florence Griswold, now the Florence Griswold Museum. The unmarried daughter of a prominent ship captain and a descendant of one of Lyme’s founding families, Florence found herself in middle age with only her property and family possessions to her name. She turned her stately but somewhat rundown home into a boardinghouse for summer vacationers. Searching for new sketching grounds, the painter Henry Ward Ranger stayed there in 1899. Completely taken with the “gorgeous” countryside “where pictures are made,” he proposed the idea of a colony of painters. Soon the Griswold House was filled with artists.
Painters set up their portable easels on the grounds, capturing the gardens and orchards as well as a tidal stream and marshes that ran through the property. Barns and outbuildings found new life as makeshift studios and, at the age of 50, Florence Griswold was reborn as the “keeper of the artist colony,” presiding at her always generous table, which was filled with lively conversation. Bred to be a gracious hostess and optimistic in nature, each year she proclaimed, “I’m going to have a wonderful season this summer.” Many times it was.
The Griswold House and the Lyme Art Colony were at their most prominent between 1900 and 1920. During that time, dozens of artists, including many leading figures in the American art world, stayed in the Griswold House or at guesthouses in town. The colony also attracted public figures, including Woodrow Wilson and his wife, the artist Ellen Axson Wilson, and their daughters. The Wilson family spent the summers of 1908 to 1911 at the Griswold House, where they developed a lifelong friendship with Florence Griswold and many artists.
Reserved largely for professional artists, a stay with Miss Florence was so esteemed that the house was irreverently nicknamed the “Holy House” by the many art students who arrived each summer and took lodgings in private homes nearby. The practice of painting on the walls and doors of the Griswold House – begun by Ranger and carried out over a number of years by more than thirty of the colony’s artists – became such a singular feature that a member of the press was moved to report that: “Every stranger within the gates of Lyme wants to see it – and to see it is to admire it.” The complete ensemble, which is preserved today within the Museum, not only documents the colony’s artistic strategies but also illustrates the lengths artists went to to create their own legacy as the “School of Lyme.”
Against the stimulating artistic backdrop of the Griswold House, the colony fostered the testing of new ideas and subjects in their art. With Childe Hassam’s arrival in Old Lyme in 1903, followed shortly thereafter by fellow Impressionist Willard Metcalf in 1905, the colony’s stylistic identity gradually shifted from Tonalism to Impressionism. Frequent reappearances by these two over the next several years drew scores of like-minded Impressionists to the colony, contributing to its reputation as “the most famous Impressionist-oriented colony in America.” Old Lyme’s identification as a major outpost of Impressionism was significantly enhanced by the success that Hassam, Metcalf, and others had with pictures of Lyme subjects in national and even international exhibitions. One newspaper noted in 1907 that this success “made Lyme sound like Standard Oil, and with no less enthusiasm than the gold hunters of ’49, the picture makers have chosen Lyme as the place to swarm.”
Coming together, largely under one roof, this experiment in communal living was life changing for many of its participants. Deep friendships were created or renewed, future spouses met and courted, and, not surprisingly, occasional rivalries and scandals surfaced. Throughout it all, an Edwardian sense of deportment prevailed, accompanied by a lively sense of humor and bon amie. Visiting the colony was, as Hassam said, like a “little excursion into Bohemia.”
But beneath the surface there were serious ambitions at play. Association with the colony had many benefits for an artist, not the least being part of an informal but extensive network of artists and dealers that extended to New York, Boston, and beyond. The colony provided regular opportunities for its artists to exhibit their work in Lyme, where they might be rewarded with sales, prizes, and critical recognition; where they could meet prospective patrons; and, perhaps most surprisingly, gain entrée into Old Lyme’s elite local society, where pedigree mattered more than money and career.
Many of the “Lyme” artists knew one other before coming to Lyme. Several had met in Boston, New York, and, especially, France. Virtually all of the painters associated with the first generation of the colony shared the common experience of training in Europe, principally in Paris at the Académie Julian. Summers abroad brought exposure to famed artists’ haunts, such as Barbizon and Grez-Sur-Loing near the Forest of Fontainebleau, Giverny in Normandy, or Laren in Holland. The lively environment of these international colonies – all of which offered friendships with other artists, inexpensive lodgings, and picturesque scenery close at hand – formed an important part of their experience abroad. It made these artists deeply committed to plein-air painting (painting out-of-doors directly from nature) and partial to joining art colonies upon their return to America.
Old Lyme re-created many of the features found abroad and was, for a time, identified in the popular press as the “American Barbizon” or the “American Giverny.” A stay at the Griswold House provided an artist with affordable lodgings, good food and company, the availability of studio space, and varied subject matter for plein-air painting. But Old Lyme offered something more – a retreat from the hurried pace of the city to a town that time had largely forgotten.
It had once been a thriving maritime town. Between 1784 and the mid-1800s, nearly 200 sailing vessels built for coastal and foreign trade were launched from Old Lyme shipyards. Prosperous families built elaborate houses along “The Street,” as the main avenue was called, including the one that Florence Griswold and her family lived in. By the late 19th century, however, the steamship had long ago replaced the sailing vessel, and the wharves, shipyards, and warehouses that lined the Lieutenant and lower Connecticut rivers had fallen into disrepair. With little else to rely on, Old Lyme gradually reverted to an economy based on farming and cottage industry. Turning inward, it became a largely forgotten byway, clinging to its glorious past.
Thus Old Lyme was particularly ripe for discovery and renewal. For the American artist so inclined, it provided a landscape steeped in historical associations and nostalgia. “You see, everything savors of the past,”
Florence Griswold said. Here was a place where painters could reconnect with their American, and, in many cases, New England roots. Its gentle, cultivated landscape, worked by generations of farmers, stirred deep feelings in the minds of the artists and, not coincidentally, their patrons.
To a considerable degree, the art of the Lyme Art Colony expressed a sense of permanence and continuity in the face of a rapidly changing America. In doing so, it shared common ground with all American Impressionists, who, like the Lyme painters, were devoted to interpreting what they regarded as the “native” characteristics of a place in highly personal ways. The paintings of the Lyme Art Colony express fresh ideas and new attitudes about man’s relationship to the American country landscape of the early 1900s.