Museum Spotlight: Florence Griswold Museum

Photo by Robert Gregson.

The Florence Griswold Museum is a nationally recognized center for American art and history. The 11-acre site on the Lieutenant River in the historic town of Old Lyme offers visitors a variety art, history, and nature in one New England village setting. Its cornerstone, the Florence Griswold House, is a fine example of a Late Georgian-style house with Federal-style features designed in 1817 by Samuel Belcher. In 2006, the Museum completed restoration of the boardinghouse to its 1910 heyday, when American artists such as Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf, and leading public figures such as Woodrow Wilson, called it their summer home.

More than a remarkable building, the Florence Griswold House occupies a unique place in the history of American art. Over 135 American artists, between 1899 and the 1930s, boarded in the Florence Griswold House when it was the center of Impressionism in America. Leading artists were invited to paint a panel on the walls or doors of the House. It brings alive the work of American Impressionist artists in the place where they lived and painted. The artists, with irreverent good humor, dubbed it the “Holy House.” They left Miss Florence, and generations of art lovers, something very special. Many painted directly on the walls and doors of the Griswold House. The tradition was probably imported from hostelries in the French art colonies of Barbizon, Giverny, and Pont-Aven. Forty-three such panels appear throughout the downstairs rooms. The most breathtaking example is found in the dining room. Here is one of the most complete chronicles of the art colony movement in America. There is no other room like it in America.

The Museum’s collections were greatly enhanced by the remarkable donation of the 190-piece American art collection of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company in 2001. Paired with its preeminent Lyme Art Colony Collection, FGM now boasts an exceptional collection of American art from the 18th to the 20th centuries with local ties to Connecticut and New England.

The Robert and Nancy Krieble Gallery, completed in 2002, is a 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art exhibition, collection storage, and study facility. The Gallery hosts changing exhibitions of American art and culture. Other facilities include, the Hartman Education Center, which was constructed in 1999 on the site of an original barn and used for education programs for people of all ages; the Rafal Landscape Center, a renovated barn where visitors learn about the landscape’s cultural importance as an inspirational place for American artists to live and work; and the c.1920 William Chadwick Studio, which was moved to the site in 1992 and restored as an example of a Lyme Art Colony artist studio.

The Museum’s grounds invite exploration. Visitors may wander the thirteen acres of scenic beauty bounded by the picturesque Lieutenant River and walk through the “old-fashioned” historic gardens of Florence Griswold.

Poor Yorick Journal recently connected with Tammi Flynn, Director of Marketing at the Florence Griswold Museum, for further insight into rediscovered objects as part of the PYJ’s Museum Partnership Program.


PY: At the turn of the 20th Century, Old Lyme’s landscape was “rediscovered” by artists who sought to escape the upheaval and urbanization of the country. According to the museum’s website Old Lyme had one constant and defining feature, its “impressively varied landscape that combined meadows, marshes, ancient trees, and winding rivers with old New England buildings, homely dirt roads, and well-worked farmlands. A landscape steeped in historical associations and nostalgia, Old Lyme was, as one of the artists exclaimed, a place ‘only waiting to be painted.’” Can you tell us how this rediscovery of the natural and nostalgic landscape gave birth to American Impressionism and how the museum honors that history?

TF: By happy circumstance, the prominent landscape artist Henry Ward Ranger arrived in 1899 shortly after Miss Florence had decided to take in boarders to lighten the financial burden of caring for her family home.

Ranger, having recently returned from study in Europe, was eager to start a colony modeled on the French Barbizon. He saw in Old Lyme the ideal setting for establishing a new American “tonal” school of landscape painting. He found Miss Florence’s home the perfect place to settle. The Griswold House offered features found in the influential art colonies of France and Holland: a stimulating environment, artistic camaraderie, inexpensive lodging, and picturesque scenery. Conveniently located between the cultural hubs of Boston and New York in the lush countryside of Connecticut, Lyme soon attracted a flourishing colony of artists. Under Ranger’s leadership, Old Lyme was, for a time, designated the “American Barbizon.”

With the arrival of Childe Hassam in 1903, the colony’s focus shifted from Tonalism to Impressionism and became known as the most famous Impressionist colony in America, the “American Giverny.” Inspired by the beauty of the New England countryside and charmed by Miss Florence’s gracious hospitality, the Colony flourished for over three decades. With the arrival of Childe Hassam in 1903, the colony’s focus shifted from Tonalism to Impressionism and became known as the most famous Impressionist colony in America, the “American Giverny.” In the years to come, other artists such as Willard Metcalf, Matilda Browne and William Chadwick would transform the stately Late Georgian house into the home of the Lyme Art Colony. As Hassam put it, this was just the place for “high thinking and low living.” Against the stimulating artistic backdrop of the Griswold House, the colony fostered the testing of new ideas and subjects in their art and drew scores of like-minded Impressionists to the colony, contributing to its reputation as “the most famous Impressionist-oriented colony in America.”

Today, artists still come to paint on the Museum’s thirteen acres of land on the Lieutenant River. Miss Florence’s lovely gardens and the local area continue to be favorite subjects for painters. The Florence Griswold House is a tribute to the Lyme Art Colony. More than a remarkable building, the Florence Griswold House occupies a unique place in the history of American art. It brings alive the work of American Impressionist artists in the place where they lived and painted. The period rooms rekindle the spirit of another life and time.


PY: In 1998, an archeological dig of the museum site “rediscovered” Florence Griswold’s original garden beds, walkways, orchards, and outbuildings. Can you tell us how the founding members of the Lyme Arts Colony used the colorful perennial gardens to inspire their work? What has the museum done to restore the gardens and what role do the gardens and grounds play today at the Museum?

TF: Visitors stand at the site of Childe Hassam’s favorite spot, stroll Miss Florence’s lovingly restored old-fashioned garden, and rest where Chadwick posed his model for the now famous, On the Piazza. Today, just as over one hundred years ago, artist and visitor alike can discover the quality of light and the spirit of place found here.

One of the Museum’s goals was to restore Miss Florence’s garden and orchard that were the subject for so many paintings by the Lyme Art Colony artists. That dream is now a reality. In 1998 an archaeological dig of the site helped the Museum to identify the physical boundaries of the garden beds and walkways as well as the surrounding orchard and outbuildings. Landscape Historian Sheila Wertheimer guided the Museum in the restoration of the gardens and site to its appearance circa 1910. The gardens behind the house have always been an important part of the landscape. Miss Florence was an avid gardener who ordered flowers and vegetables from seed catalogues. Using historic photographs and paintings, these gardens have been replanted to reflect the gardening preferences of the time. In 2000, members of the Museum’s “Garden Gang” planted what would become over 1,500 heirloom perennials for the garden. Garden Gang volunteers have become absorbed in researching the specific cultivars and locating sources for historically-accurate plant material.

There are always new additions being planted on the grounds to evoke the natural landscape that attracted the artists of the Lyme Art Colony more than 100 years ago. Restoring the gardens and grounds that once served as a subject for the American Impressionists is central to the Museum’s plans to create a living cultural landscape here. The grounds capture a sense of place and provide a sensorial understanding of why so many artists found, and continue to find, inspiration in this riverside setting. Just beyond the gardens lies the Lieutenant River. Visitors are encouraged to walk along the river’s edge for a better look at the variety of birds that call the area home, for a picnic on its banks, or to take in a summer concert.


PY: The Museum entices visitors to Discover Art, History, and Nature. Can you tell us how the current exhibition—Art and the New England Farm—touches on these three areas? What other ongoing or upcoming exhibits also reflects the museum’s mission?

TF: The Museum is uniquely positioned to tell this story—both for its collections’ rare depth on this subject and for the Griswold estate’s own farming backstory. Purchased by the Griswolds in 1841, these grounds became a country estate with barns, an orchard, gardens, and riverfront pastures. During Florence Griswold’s childhood, the family practiced small-scale farming, producing dairy products, cultivating corn, potatoes, peas, beans, and harvesting hay. Their livestock include cows, pigs, chickens, geese, and a horse. By the 1880s, farming on the property had declined, and much of what was grown supplemented the table for family and guests (soon to include the Lyme Art Colony painters.) Art and the New England Farm is on view through September 16.

The Museum’s next exhibition, Paper Trail: American Prints, Drawings, and Watercolors, will be on view September 28, 2018 through January 27, 2019. Within the Museum’s collection works on paper represent a key component of the institution’s “founding documents.” During the Lyme Art Colony’s heyday artists gathered around Florence Griswold’s parlor table to make drawings—playing the “Wiggle Game”—an amusement where one artist was challenged to finish a drawing of disparate lines begun by another. From that kernel of works the collection has grown in scope to include Connecticut artists using ink, graphite, watercolor, and pastel on paper from Colonial times to the present. This exhibition follows the “paper trail” of acquisitions and gifts made to the Museum over its long history to examine how artists’ approaches to process, including drawing, etching, painting, and lithography, connect and speak to each other over time. In addition to showcasing artists at the Lyme Art Colony, collection highlights include works on paper by Anni and Joseph Albers, Fidelia Bridges, James Daugherty, Sol LeWitt, James Martin, Thomas Nason, and Mary Way.


PY: The Florence Griswold Museum is unique in that it blends an historic house, gardens, and grounds with a period in American art. What parts of the museum, or specific pieces, represents the Home of American Impressionism?

TF: Miss Florence’s boardinghouse became the center of America’s best-known Impressionist art colony. Both literally and figuratively, this house was “home” to a generation of some of America’s most noted Impressionist artists. The painted panels are the best representation of the art colony time period. During the first summers of the Lyme art colony the artists began to paint scenes on the door panels of the boardinghouse. The invitation (by one of the leading artists) to execute a panel was the ultimate affirmation of one’s membership in the select group of artists. By 1905, this tradition spread to the dining room where the artists installed double rows of painted panels on all four walls. As a gallery of works by the colony’s “comrades of the brush,” the dining room acquired considerable fame, “Every stranger within the gates of Lyme wants to see it – and to see it is to admire it,” remarked one journalist in 1914.

Today, these 38 individual panels and the eight double panels are thankfully all still in situ in the Griswold House. From classic Old Lyme subjects to exotic and faraway places, the panels present a treasure trove of artistic expression of the art colony. These are the paintings the artists selected to leave behind as their artistic legacy.


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By Lisa Peterson
Museum Partnership Coordinator