"High Thinking and Low Living"

By Scanlan, Laura Wolff | Humanities, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

"High Thinking and Low Living"


Scanlan, Laura Wolff, Humanities


The Story of the Old Lyme Art Colony

In 1899, American artist Henry Ward Ranger searched the New England countryside for a place to establish a new American school of painting-a place reminiscent of the vibrant art communities he admired while studying abroad-a retreat where fellow artists could escape the city and paint en plein air. He came upon Old Lyme, a sleepy town situated between Boston and New York. "I want to drive you around & see a little of this beautiful country where pictures are made-your station is Lyme/' Ranger wrote to his New York agent.

"In the late nineteenth century there is this whole generation of artists who came back to the United States after studying in Europe's art centers-places like Paris, Munich, and Laren-and were looking for picturesque country locations to capture the essence of the American people and the American landscape, and the American past," says Jeffrey Andersen, director of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. "And at that time, the American past was in New England."

That first summer in Old Lyme, Ranger rented a room in a slightly rundown late Georgian mansion-turned-boardinghouse owned by Florence Griswold, the unmarried daughter of a once prominent shipping captain. He soon proposed the idea of an artist colony to "Miss Florence," who had been taking in boarders to ease the financial burden of maintaining her family home. Florence agreed, and in the summer of 1900, Ranger returned with a group of artists, which included the painters Lewis Cohen, Henry Rankin Poore, Louis Paul Dessar, and WiUiam Henry Howe.

For the next three decades, more than two hundred artists, mcluding a generation of America's finest painters-Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, William Chadwick, and Frank Vincent DuMond-transformed the once staid Griswold family home into a rollicking communal retreat where they exchanged ideas, experimented with new color palettes, experienced breakthroughs, and produced some of their best work.

The artists' haven has been restored to its appearance circa 1910, the time of the colony's greatest popularity. In the preservation, says Andersen, "we wanted to tell the story of an artist colony and capture its spirit. The house is now humanized. It's not the first or only artist colony in America, but there is a richness here."

The town and the house inspired major paintings: Ranger's Connecticut Woods, 1899, and Bradbury's Mill Pond, no. 2, 1903, currently in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C; Hassam's Church at Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1905, on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; Metcalf 's Dogwood Blossoms, 1906, at the Florence Griswold Museum; and May Night, 1906, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

"May Night, a moonlit scene of the front of the Griswold House, made Metcalf 's career," says Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator of the Florence Griswold Museum. Before exhibiting May Night, Metcalf offered it to Florence as payment for his board. "I won't take it," she is said to have replied. "It's the best thing you've ever done. When you show it in New York, they'll snap it up at once, and everything will be lovely."

In 1907, Metcalf won a gold medal and a $1,000 award from the Corcoran Gallery of Art for May Night. The Corcoran then purchased the painting for $3,000, making it the first contemporary work acquired by the museum. That same year, Lillian Baynes Griffin wrote in the Hartford Courant, "Willard Metcalf sold in three days $8,000 worth of Lyme landscapes in the St. Botolph Club last winter. This made Lyme landscapes sound like Standard Oil, and with no less enthusiasm than the gold hunters of '49, the picture makers have chosen Lyme as a place in which to swarm."

From revolutionary times through the early nineteenth century, Old Lyme's location near the mouth of the Connecticut River had helped it prosper as a sWpbuilding town. Wealthy captains built grand homes like Griswold House. …

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