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02DSC 0215metcalf maynight

Willard Metcalf, May Night, 1906, National Gallery of Art

Tucked away in eastern Connecticut, just off the Interstate and across the Connecticut River, is an idyllic museum that once functioned as the first artist colony of American Impressionism. At the time of its founding, just after 1900, young artists as well as those up and coming sought a place not far from New York City where they could practice their art in direct sunlight without having to spend too much money. The place they found was a genteel boarding house, which is described as a late Georgian sea captains styled home, with Greek corinthian pillars adorning the front of the house.

03 griswoldFlorence Griswold Home

Owned by a spinster named Florence Griswold, American artists resumed a lifestyle they once knew in Europe, where many of them such as Willard Metcalf had been a part of the expatriate Americans gathered in Giverny around the French Impressionist master, Claude Monet.

Monet despised French critics, in part, possibly, because they didn't buy his paintings. So when his step daughter Blanche Hoschede, married an American named Theodore Butler, which, coincidentally, was around the time the firm of Durand Ruel made in roads to selling his work in America, the querulous master started to assemble a group of American followers who worked in his stylistic manner. That was in the mid to late 1880's.

Fast forward fifteen years and many of these artists had returned to the United States seeking a similar escape where artistic bon vivant company could again flourish.

04DSC 0583Griswold home from the side porch entrance

04DSC 0594Floor Plan

Not everybody got along in the Griswold house. Childe Hassam, for example, ruffled a few feathers when he dismissed Henry Ward Rangers style of painting as being an example of the "school of coal and bitumen."

It has to be said that Ranger's work was very dark, whilst Childe Hassam's work was pretty much the antithesis, and was very bright. Hassam's close friend Willard Metcalf, whose ultimate piece a view of the Griswold home titled May Night, became famous when it sold to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Metcalf's euphoria was short lived as his wife ran off with one of his students named Robert Hogg Nisbet. 

05DSC 0515Art Colony Parlor

06DSC 0520 edwardrook bradburysmillEdward Rook, Bradburys Mill, 1905

07DSC 0521 alphonseJongers harpistAlphonse Jongers, Harpist (Miss Florence Griswold in 1903)

07DSC 0533WoodhullAdamsWoodhull Adams, Parlor Scene, Circa 1910

The house is organized into several sections with the art colony parlor and the art colony dining room being of particular note. The parlor has numerous art works on the wall, with, unusually, the most significant and striking pieces being the painted door panels by Henry Ward Ranger. Much like Hassam noted, they are indeed dark.

Both Henry Rankin Poore and Henry Ward Ranger started a trend at the house when they painted pictures on the door panels — a practice inspired by the country inns of Europe where artists often stayed. The first of the painted doors was actually a collaboration between the two. Ranger painted a scene of the wooden Bow Bridge behind the Griswold House and challenged Poore to complete the scene.

As you can see below, Poore matched the style and color perfectly in a painting showing his dog howling at the moon.

08DSC 0527HRPoor HWRangerHenry Rankin Poor, Dog Howing at the Moon, and Henry Ward Ranger, Bow Bridge, pair of panels,

Towards the back of the house is the art colony dining room, with upwards of thirty paintings on panel providing an ambiance without peer. The combined effect of all of these works - literally painted by the artists who lived here between 1902 and 1915 - is dazzling. It must have been quite something sitting for dinner at the turn of the 20th century, especially with an air-of-challenge between some of the artists within the colony.

09DSC 0546Art Colony Dining Room

10DSC 0547Art Colony Dining Room

011DSC 0551FrankbicknellMounatainurel1910 EverettWarner LymeinWinterFrank Bicknell, Mountain Laurel, 1910 and Everett Warner, Lyme in Winter

012 willhoewfoote florencegriswolldhousebymoonightWill Howe Foote, Florence Griswold House by Moonlight, 1905, perhaps the inspiration for Metcalf May Night

014DSC 0581WillardMetcalfMaineCOast1907 1908Willard Metcalf, Maine Coast, 1907-1908

016DSC 0562childehassamTheBathers1903F. Childe Hassam, The Bathers, 1903

017DSC 0561charles morris young autumn1907Charles Morris Young, Autumn, 1907

019 charles vezin singerbuidingsatnightCharles Vezin, Singer Building at Night

020DSC 0554wm s robinsonAnOldHouseinLyme1905William S. Robinson, An Old House in Lyme, 1905

013DSC 0550metcalf pooorlittleBlotticelliPortraitofLouiseWIlcoxWillard Metcalf, Poor Little Blotticelli (Portrait of Louise Wilcox), 1907 - Situated in the Colony Dining Room

018DSC 0577gregorysmith kittensinthesnowGregory Smith, Kittens in the Snow - Situated in the Colony Dining Room

015 thomaswatsonball Chinese TwilightThomas Watson Ball, Chinese Twilight - Situated in the Colony Dining Room

Eventually, others will want to wander that magical room, and with this potential for future interest in mind, the museum has expanded its footprint with an annex built fifteen years ago to house the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection. Revered as producers of premium quality guns and munitions, the state of Connecticut is also known for its arcane insurance companies. Hartford may have seen better days, but how many New England cities have an insurance company like Aetna? For international readers, Aetna is the same size as Lloyds of London, and some. Rumor has it Aetna is leaving, but that isn't our concern. The Hartford Steam Boiler Collection has found a home, here on the back part of the Griswold property.

For those with an interest in American Impressionism, it really is a rare experience to have somewhere like the Griswold House still intact and as it was over a 100 years ago, almost like a time machine. Nothing has changed too much in the past century or so at the Griswold House, and that is priceless for future generations interested in the study of American Impressionism. 

030DSC 0488hassam tothe101sr gloucester 1918Childe Hassam, To the 101st, Gloucester, 1918

031wiggins washingtonsbirthday madisonsquareGuy C. Wiggins, Washington's Birthday, Madison Square, 1927

032Willhowefoote village vampWill Howe Foote, The Village Vamp, 1921

033oscarfeher tryingonhergloveOscar Ferher, Trying on Her Glove. 1918

For more on the artists of Old Lyme click here to see the Griswold Museum biographies

For further information, visit the website: florencegriswoldmuseum.org

Up next, where to stay, and the contemporary art scene of Old Lyme, the Lyme Art Association.

 

About the Author

Robert Alexander Boyle

Robert Alexander Boyle

 Alexander Boyle is a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, CT where he majored in History. Prior to graduation he co-authored the seminal book Acid Rain in 1983. Alex has worked for the Metropo...