The Old Lyme Art Colony and the Florence Griswold Museum
Recently, while on a family vacation to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, my mother and I found ourselves with an unexpected free afternoon. Neither of us was interested in sitting around in a hotel room all day, so we did an internet search to find other things to do in the area. My Mom found a web page for the Florence Griswold Museum and since it was not far away, we decided to give it a try. Neither of us had any idea what we would find there, and we were in for a very pleasant surprise.
We pulled up to a beautiful home surrounded by tall trees and stunningl gardens. We thought that if the museum wasn't interesting, we could easily enjoy an afternoon just strolling around the grounds. We had no need to fear though, because as soon we stepped into the museum, we knew we were in for a treat.
We began our visit with a video about the history of the home. I don't usually have the patience to sit through videos when there is art to look at, but this one really captured my attention. Illustrations by David Macaulay brought the fascinating story of Florence Griswold and the Old Lyme Art Colony to life, and I was gripped by the story of this wonderful place.
In the early part of the 20th century, an art colony had been established in Old Lyme by the Tonalist painter Henry Ward Ranger. He was looking for a place for his artist friends to stay when they wanted to get out of the city to paint outdoors in the summer. Florence Griswold was running a boarding house in Old Lyme, which proved to be a beneficial situation for both of them. Miss Florence had the guarantee that her home would be filled all summer long, and Henry knew he and his friends would have an amiable place to spend the summers plein air painting and talking about art.
In 1903 the American Impressionist Childe Hassam arrived at Miss Florence's boarding house. Prior to his arrival, the artists mainly followed the Tonalist school - a style of atmospheric landscape painting dominated by dark, neutral colors. Childe Hassam brought the Impressionist style with him, and under his influence, the group changed stylistic direction. Most of the painters from then on associated themselves with the American Impressionist movement.
When you walk into the house, you are greeted by charming docents who are excited to tell the story of this beautiful house and its guests. They speak of Florence Griswold and the artists who stayed there as if they are old friends, and their enthusiasm for this place is contagious. They tell stories about the home and its inhabitants that tell of the deep affection and respect the artists had for Miss Florence. The lower level of the house is set up in period rooms, decorated with some of the original furniture, and the upstairs rooms are galleries showcasing paintings by some of the artists who spent their summers there. One of the rooms is set up just as it would be if an artist were in residence, complete with easel, palette and brushes.
For me, the most special room in the house is the dining room. Artists who stayed there would be invited to paint a panel of the walls and doors, but only if they were good to Miss Florence, and deemed worthy by the other artists. One of these panels has a painting on both sides. The artist who was originally asked to paint it skipped out without paying his bill. The other artists were furious with him for his mistreatment of Miss Florence, and his panel was turned to the wall. Another artist was later offered this panel to paint. This room was so wonderful, I fantasized about sitting at the table with a cup of tea while contemplating all the beautiful paintings . I could easily imagine the jolly dinners that took place there with lots of lively conversation and bottles of wine.
The museum's website is a wonderful source for more stories and information about the history of the boardinghouse, its visitors, the Tonalist School and American Impressionism. There are also beautiful photos of the rooms and art in the collection if you can't make it to Connecticut to see them for yourself.
I am so grateful that my mother and I had a free afternoon to discover this unexpected treasure. I have always had a dream of going on an artist's retreat, and I spent the entire afternoon imagining what it was like to be in this lovely home, painting outdoors by day and engaging in lively conversations with other artists in the evening. My mother and I set out that afternoon with no idea what we were in for, and the Florence Griswold Museum turned out to be my favorite destination of our family trip.