Published: August 29, 2006
After undergoing a $2.5 million restoration that took more than a year, the Florence Griswold House reopened this summer. The 1817 National Landmark structure, centerpiece of the Florence Griswold Museum, was the headquarters of the Lyme Art Colony, a hotbed of American Impressionism in the first decades of the Twentieth Century.
Open to the public since 1947, the museum is named after the redoubtable Florence Griswold (1850–1937), who transformed her family’s Late Georgian-style mansion into a boardinghouse for artists, each paying a modest $7 a week for room and board.
Among the first lodgers, in 1899, was prominent landscape painter and Tonalist titan Henry Ward Ranger. For a few years Old Lyme was known as the “American Barbizon.” But when charismatic Impressionist leader Childe Hassam arrived in 1903, bringing with him like-minded friends and colleagues, the colony’s focus shifted to Impressionism. Old Lyme became known as the “American Giverny.” This rambunctious, bohemian group of talented artists, nurtured by “Miss Florence,” flourished for decades as the nation’s best-known Impressionist art colony. In all, more than 200 artists stayed at the Griswold House.
Jeffrey W. Andersen, the museum’s director, has overseen its growth since 1976. His goal, he says, is to make the museum “an unforgettable place for the mind and the senses.”
After nearly a decade of fundraising, research and planning, the handsome, imposing mansion — itself often depicted in paintings — has been painstakingly refurbished and refurnished to its appearance around 1910, when the art colony was at its peak. It is the culmination of an astounding ten-year capital campaign that has raised over $17 million to support the museum’s mission of “promoting the understanding of Connecticut’s contribution to American art, with emphasis on the art, history and landscape of the Lyme region.”
During the course of the restoration project, the exterior of the house was stabilized and climate controls and other interior features were upgraded. Drawing on vintage paintings and photographs, memories of first-hand witnesses and scientific analyses of the building itself, the museum was able to recapture what officials term “the timeworn charm of a staid family home turned into a boisterous communal living space.”
The refurnishing effort included custom wallpapers, carpets and lighting fixtures faithfully reproduced from worn originals.
Those familiar with the rather threadbare appearance of the house will be thrilled with the refreshingly restored look of the first-floor rooms. Visitors can now experience the house as the artists did in its heyday, from a typical boarder’s accommodations to the long hallway that served as an exhibition gallery to the memorable, idiosyncratic dining room. Reading rails in each room provide visitors with details about what they are seeing. As museum staff observe, “Visitors can now imagine Miss Florence’s gracious hospitality, and the laughter and camaraderie of the artists in every room.”
Of special importance is the restored dining room — one of the great rooms in America — with more than 40 panels painted on all four walls by artist-boarders. On view are characteristic landscapes by the likes of Matilda Brown, Walter Griffin, Childe Hassam, William Henry Howe, Willard Metcalf and Carleton Wiggins.
The highlight is a long, narrow — and hilarious — panel over the fireplace, “The Fox Chase,” painted by Henry Rankin Poore, 1901–1905. It features a string of discernable artists, including Ranger, Hassam and Brown, engaging in a variety of antics as they run in pursuit of a fox. It is an unforgettable reminder of the interesting personalities and their high jinks that filled the art colony with such vibrancy and fun.
Rooms on the second floor feature changing exhibitions tracing the history of the house and the art colony, drawing on the museum’s holdings of nearly 4,000 artifacts and archival documents and almost 500 paintings by 100-plus Old Lyme artists.
The 11-acre grounds around the house have also been nicely spruced up. Nowadays painters are often seen at their easels recording the glories of the effulgent gardens, just as Impressionists did in bygone days.
The modern, riverfront Kreible Gallery features special exhibitions. On view through September 10 is the wonderful “A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr.” Featured are Ammi Phillips-like portraits that the Hampton, Conn., native (1766–1854) painted as an itinerant artist around New England and New York, in spite of being deaf.
Also displayed, through March 25, is “The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes Through the Eyes of Venture Smith.” This show pairs verses by Connecticut’s Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson with paintings from the museum’s collection to chronicle the saga of Venture Smith, a former slave who purchased his freedom in the late Eighteenth Century.
There is also a busy education center and the site of Childe Hassam’s studio on the banks of the scenic Lieutenant River.
The studio of painter William Chadwick (1879–1962), moved a few miles onto the grounds and furnished exactly as he left it, offers insights into the workplace of a member of the colony. Chadwick’s beautiful painting of an elegant lady on the side porch of the Griswold House, “On the Porch,” circa 1908, is a star of the museum’s collection and records a site that looks the same today.
Especially in the context of the splendid makeover of the historic mansion, it is easy to understand the attraction of both the picturesque Old Lyme countryside and Griswold’s empathetically-run boardinghouse.
In addition to providing a real sense of the place that inspired so much significant art, the Florence Griswold Museum honors a remarkable woman whose generosity and encouragement to visiting artists has earned her a special niche in the annals of American art.
The site, one of the most important places in American art history, has fittingly been accurately and appealingly preserved. The Florence Griswold Museum is open year-round at 96 Lyme Street, reached by Exit 70 off I-95. For information, 860-434-5542 or www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org.
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