Published: April 29, 2003
By Stephen May
OLD LYME, CONN. – Cementing its growing national reputation as an outstanding regional museum and the leading repository of Connecticut art, the Florence Griswold Museum is exhibiting spectacular additions to its collection, elegantly displayed in its recently expanded facilities. On view through June 22 in the 9,500-square-foot Robert and Nancy Krieble Gallery, which opened last July, is “The American Artist in Connecticut: The Legacy of the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection.” It is an auspicious beginning for the new facility.
The handsome $5.8 million structure, beautifully sited on the Lieutenant River, contains spacious, light-filled galleries ideally suited to showcasing the 80 works donated by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company (HSB) in May 2001. The much-admired collection, assembled over two decades under the leadership of HSB’s former Chairman and CEO Wilson Wilde, contains in all 188 paintings and works on paper and two sculptures. The HSB holdings constituted “truly one of America’s landmark collections, the kind that can put a museum on the map,” observed Elizabeth Brown, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
All the works are by artists who lived and/or worked in Connecticut, principally from the late Eighteenth to the early Twentieth centuries. More than a score were members of the Lyme Art Colony that flourished around Miss Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse after the turn of the century. In recent years the site has been expanded to its original 11-acre dimensions and its gardens are being restored.
Successful completion of this ambitious project, spearheaded by Museum Director Jeffrey W. Andersen, has made the Griswold an important site for both art lovers and history buffs.
The Krieble Gallery, designed by local architect Chad Floyd, is properly identified by museum officials as “an intriguing mix of American vernacular architecture.” Incorporated are barn-like forms, an undulating exterior that reflects the structure’s proximity to the river, and sky-lit spaces especially conducive to showing the museum’s artwork. The building includes three galleries and a study center. It is connected to the large Twentieth Century Marshfield House, which contains visitor services and staff offices.
This public unveiling of the HSB artwork spotlights both the diversity and depth of the fine arts tradition in the Nutmeg State and a who’s who of artists who took advantage of the state’s proximity to New York and Boston and its wealth of subject matter.
Gallery One, devoted to “Portraiture in Early Connecticut,” is highlighted by three splendid portraits, painted between the end of the American Revolution and 1825, by now well-known artists. They created memorable likenesses reflecting the pious, industrious character of their no-nonsense Yankee patrons.
Their leader, Massachusetts-born Ralph Earl, learned from expatriate Benjamin West in London, but toned down his British polish to capture the reticence and modesty of sitters such as “Mrs Guy Richards of New London,” 1793. Typically, Earl captured the ambience of his subject’s status by showing her seated next to a window offering a view of the wharf owned by her husband’s dry-goods business.
Two of Earl’s followers, itinerant painters John Brewster, Jr, and Ammi Phillips, are represented by “Boy Holding a Book,” circa 1810, and “Portrait of Katherine Salisbury Newkirk Hickok,” circa 1825, respectively. Each offers a crisp, stark likeness rendered in a winning folk art manner.
The sleepers in this gallery are four miniature profile portraits by Mary Way of New London, who fashioned fascinating likenesses of local gentry by combining watercolor on silk with paper collage elements. “One of America’s earliest professional women artists,” according to art historian Hildegard Cummings, co-author of the exhibition catalog, Way plied her trade in Connecticut and New York City.
The section on “Discovering the Connecticut Landscape” features important paintings by Hudson River School titans Thomas Cole and Frederic E. Church and fine canvases by two significant followers, John F. Kensett and David Johnson.
Cole’s “Study for a Wild Scene,” 1831, reflects the predilection of the school’s founder for romantic landscapes celebrating the grandeur and beauty of the American wilderness.
Church, a loyal son of Hartford and student of Cole, painted “The Charter Oak of Hartford,” circa 1846, when he was hardly into his twenties. This deft and detailed image of what Andersen appropriately calls “an icon of Connecticut history” presaged the epic panoramas that were to make Church America’s leading mid-Nineteenth Century landscapist.
Kensett, a native of Cheshire, Conn., led a peripatetic existence until settling on Contentment Island, where he created numerous serene, luminist views of the water and land in the area.
Johnson’s tranquil, evocative scenes depicting fishermen near Greenwich and of a rustic bridge in West Cornwall suggest why he deserves to be better known.
Fine examples of still lifes and genre subjects nicely complement the landscapes. “The Clay Pipe,” 1890s, is typically skillful trompe l’oeil rendering by New Haven’s John Haberle, while “Black Bass,” 1872, depicting a fish pursuing a lure, offers a rare example of the work of Gurdon Trumbull of Hartford.
The most interesting still lifes are by little-known African American painter Charles Ethan Porter (1847-1923), who studied in New York and Paris and pursued his career in Hartford. “Strawberries,” 1888, one of three Porters given by HSB, documents his talented, meticulous style. According to Cummings, Porter’s art was collected by the likes of Church and Mark Twain, but he faded into obscurity and was not rediscovered until the 1980s.
Among the standout scenes of everyday life are charming midcentury paintings by Alvan Fisher and George H. Durrie. In John Ludlow Martin’s “View of the School House at Green Farms,” circa 1840, students and teachers stroll on the grounds of the old Adams Academy (extant to this day) as high-spirited hunters dash by in a carriage drawn by high-stepping white horses.
There are many highlights among the numerous Impressionist canvases in the exhibition, including examples from art colonies in Cos Cob, Mystic and, of course, Old Lyme. Escaping the grit and congestion of New York City, a number of leading Impressionists traveled by train to the Nutmeg State, where they found inspiration in picturesque landscapes and communities built by sturdy Yankee settlers. Often working outdoors, these painters utilized bright light and vivid colors to capture the mood of places.
Some of the strongest Impressionist work emanated from the lively group of artists who gathered in and around what is now the Bush-Holley Historic Site in Cos Cob, described by Cummings as “the home of the first Impressionist art colony in America.” Its leading figures, John H. Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, are particularly well represented in the HSB collection.
Twachtman, who boarded for a time at the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich, taught summer art classes for years in Cos Cob. Some of his finest works feature snow scenes, including the wonderful “Connecticut Shore, Winter,” circa 1889. “Probably” depicting the harbor at Bridgeport, writes Cummings in the exhibition catalog, this beautiful work “retains the asymmetrical design favored by [James McNeill] Whistler and other japonistes but is painted directly, with a spontaneous, self-assured verve that boldly summarizes the bulk and rigging of the ships.”
The gifted Theodore Robinson, Twachtman’s close friend, spent much of his abbreviated career in France, but did some outstanding marinescapes and landscapes while staying in Cos Cob and Greenwich. “Autumn Sunlight (In the Woods),” 1888, is a superb example of the manner that employed high colorism, flickering light and broken brushwork.
Weir, another great Twachtman friend, divided his time between New York City and properties in Windham and Branchville, now a National Historic Site. “Windham from Mullin’s Hill,” circa 1895, reflects Weir’s mastery of Impressionist techniques, while “Gyp and the Gypsy,” 1890, affectionately depicting his daughter and dog, demonstrates his skills as an etcher. This HSB gift also includes Weir’s small but strong oil portrait of his father, Hudson Valley painter and West Point art instructor Robert Weir, and his delicate drypoint likeness of his older brother, artist John F. Weir.
The latter’s ample talents, largely overshadowed by his work as director of Yale University’s School of Art and by his brother’s successes, are displayed in a wonderfully hued, evocative canvas, “East Rock, New Haven,” circa 1901. “The autumnal tones that dominate the painting,” Cummings observes, “as well as the texture and subtle modeling of the masses of foliage, are characteristic of Tonalism, while the rock is bathed in so soft an Impressionist light that it becomes more ethereal than majestic.”
The Mystic art colony is most prominently represented in the exhibition in colorful canvases by brothers Gifford and Reynolds Beal and highlighted by brilliant paintings by Charles H. Davis, the colony’s leader. Davis’s “Twilight Over the Water,” 1892, and “Summer Uplands,” no date, reflect the bright colors and strong brushwork he employed during his four decades in Mystic.
A number of big names associated with Hartford and Farmington are exhibited, including Milton Avery, Ernest Lawson and Dwight W. Tryon. On view is a handsome, 42¼ -inch-high bronze sculpture, “Joy of the Waters,” 1920, by Harriet W. Frishmuth. This animated, sprightly fountain figure is characteristic of the work of this artist, who studied with Auguste Rodin in Paris and Gutzon Borglum in New York and lived to the age of 100.
The final section of the exhibition, devoted to artists of the Lyme art colony, demonstrates how the Griswold’s already superb collection of works by these painters has been immeasurably enhanced by the HSB gift.
Henry Ward Ranger, who in 1899 began the influx of artists to Old Lyme and then moved to Noank when his Tonalist style was overtaken by the plethora of Impressionist painters, is represented by a characteristically evocative canvas. “Mason’s Island,” 1905, is a subdued depiction of a sylvan setting on the then-rustic island that lay within sight of Ranger’s hillside home in Noank.
The famous artist who stimulated the move of fellow Impressionists to Miss Florence’s boarding house and the Old Lyme area, Childe Hassam, has seven works in the HSB collection. Displayed in the current exhibition are four beauties, including “Ten Pound Island,” circa 1886-89, a view of the small island in the harbor of Gloucester, Maine, and “The Ledges, October in Old Lyme, Connecticut,” 1907, portraying the rocky terrain and trees around the town where Hassam spent so much productive time.
Two Hassam standouts were created on Appledore Island, in the Isles of Shoals, just off the Maine-New Hampshire coast, where Hassam summered for years as part of the cultural salon gathered around poet/gardener Celia Thaxter and her family’s hotel. “Summer Evening,” 1886, is a somewhat enigmatic, light-filled depiction of a contemplative woman seated next to a flower filled pot gazing out a window into a field. “Isles of Shoals,” 1906, offers a broadly brushed, dynamic view of blue waves crashing against the tan rocks of an Appledore Island inlet.
There are eight works in the HSB trove by Willard Metcalf, a regular at Miss Florence’s place and a leading American Impressionist. This brings to 22 the Metcalf holdings of the Griswold Museum — the largest collection of the artist in the world. “Dogwood Blossoms” is a sunny view of two women amid boulders and trees in Old Lyme, while “Thawing Brook (Winter Shadows),” 1911, executed at another art colony in Cornish, N.H., demonstrates the painter’s mastery of snowy New England landscapes.
A prolific and accomplished artist, much admired in his time, Metcalf seems a bit overlooked these days. As Cummings writes, “His images gave comfort in an unsettled era of rapid industrialization and economic unrest, and they helped create an identity of rural New England that lingers in the American imagination.”
Matilda Browne, the most prominent woman artist in Old Lyme, created brightly hued works such as “In Voorhees’ Garden,” 1914. Edward Rooks, another Old Lyme stalwart, is represented by a large, appealing canvas, “Laurel,” featuring Connecticut’s state flower blooming along the Lieutenant River.
The most famous artistic couple in Old Lyme, sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh and painter Robert Vonnoh, are exhibited in direct and indirect ways. Robert Vonnoh’s strong and handsome canvas, “Portrait of John Severinus Conway,” 1883, depicts a fellow student at the Académie Julian in Paris. In Vonnoh’s “Portrait of Bessie Potter Vonnoh,” 1907, his wife pauses in her studio with a sculpture in progress. Painted soon after the Vonnohs began a quarter-century of summering in Old Lyme, this portrait was recently acquired by the Griswold Museum at auction.
Other significant Old Lyme artists displayed include Bruce Crane, Frank Vincent DuMond, Charles Ebert, Edmund Greacen, Ivan G. Olinsky, Edward Volkert, Vorhees, Everett J. Warner and Guy C. Wiggins. Their paintings add depth and luster to the museum’s already extensive collection of art of the community.
The exhibition is complemented by a valuable, 96-page catalog with an overview of the HSB collection by Andersen, insightful commentaries on 52 works (illustrated in color) by consulting curator Cummings, and a complete black and white illustrated checklist of the collection.
The Florence Griswold Museum is at 96 Lyme Street in Old Lyme (exit 70 off I-95). For information, 860-434-5542.
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