A HAVEN FOR PAINTERS: The
Art Colony at Old Lyme
During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Old Lyme was the center of a leading Impressionist art colony. Artists from all across the country flocked to the area to paint this quintessential New England villages lush landscapes. This exhibition uses paintings from the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection, new Museum acquisitions, rarely viewed works, photographs, and archival material to cover a variety of themes surrounding the artists of the colony and their subjects. It is the first exhibition to fully incorporate the Hartford Steam Boiler collection with the Museums other holdings.The American Art Colony at Lyme
During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Old Lyme was the center of a leading Impressionist art colony. Based upon European precedents, artist colonies like the one at Lyme attracted painters with picturesque subject matter, inexpensive lodgings, and a lively esprit de corps. Artists from all across the country flocked to Old Lyme to paint the landscape and other subjects found in and around the region. Many became permanent members of the community, helping to foster an identity for the town as a haven for painters.
The heart of the Lyme Art Colony was the home of Florence Griswold who, for financial reasons, had turned her family estate into a boarding house. After the painter Henry Ward Ranger arrived here in 1899, the Griswold House became a center for artists. Seemingly overnight, barns and outbuildings were transformed into makeshift studios. Artists set up portable easels to paint en plein air in the gardens or along the tidal river that bordered the property. For the artists, Lyme was an American version of the art colonies they had experienced abroad as well as a retreat from the increased urbanization and industrialization of Americas cities. Working largely within the stylistic traditions of Tonalism and Impressionism, these artists created paintings that celebrated Lymes unique sense of place.
Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914)
Side Porch, Griswold House, 1910
Oil on artist board
Given by Dorothy Dunn Griswold in memory of her husband, George Turnure Griswold
Ellen Axson Wilson, first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, spent the summers of 1905, 1908, 1909, 1910 and 1911 in Old Lyme with members of the art colony. Often accompanied by her teenage daughters and her husband, Ellen came to Lyme to resume her serious study of art that she had begun at the Art Students League in mid-1880s. The family usually stayed at the Griswold House. At the time she painted this view of its side porch in 1910, her husband was considering a run for governor of New Jersey. Within two years, he would be elected President. Ellens promising artistic career was cut short by her death in August 1914.
Life at the "Holy House"
The Griswold House was designated the "Holy House" by Childe Hassam as a humorous takeoff on the Holley House, a boarding house that catered to artists in Cos Cob. Nearly all the rooms in the Griswold mansion were converted into guest bedrooms, including the third floor attic, where bachelor artists stayed in a maze of small rooms lit only by dormer windows. During its heyday from 1900 to 1915, the house came alive with the vibrant personalities of the artists, Florence Griswold, her domestic staff, and the many dogs and cats that had free run of the place. The gracious hospitality of Miss Florence had, as one lodger put it, "all the charm of being a guest with all the freedom of being at home."
Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916)
Autumn Landscape, 1897
Oil on board
Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
During the 1890s Ranger increasingly turned his attention to portraying old trees and forest interiors, both in his native upstate New York and in Canada. A year after he painted Autumn Landscape, he began to explore the countryside around Southern Connecticut, painting in East Lyme initially and then discovering Florence Griswolds boarding house in 1899.
In the 1880s, American painters began to produce paintings in which landscape forms are perceived through an overall tone of colored atmosphere or mist. Frequently, a single color, such as brown or blue, would dominate such compositions. During the late 1890s American art critics began to use the term tonal with great frequency to describe these works. Two of the leading painters associated with this style are George Inness and the expatriate James McNeill Whistler. Inspired by their works as well as by the artists of the French Barbizon and Dutch Hague schools, a number of Lyme painters created evocative landscapes of mood and poetry.
Henry Ward Ranger, who founded the Lyme Art Colony in 1899, was perhaps the principal spokesman for a Tonalist point of view after 1900. He declared that, above all, tonality means "harmonious modulations of color." Under Rangers leadership, many of the first artists to arrive in Old Lyme painted in a Tonalist style. Although a significant body of tonal work was produced here and elsewhere, this work soon became eclipsed with the popularity of Impressionism and European modernism.
The word "Impressionism" originated at a Paris exhibition in 1874 as a derogatory term to describe works that appeared sketchy and unfinished. Working in a shorthand technique rather than a more finished approach, the French Impressionists used a limited range of bold colors to record their immediate impressions of the everyday world. Drawing upon 19th-century color theories, artists used contrasting colors for heightened effects. Outdoor or plein air painting is central to Impressionism, allowing artists to paint directly and spontaneously from nature.
Childe Hassam, along with a small group of other American artists, began to experiment with the stylistic characteristics of Impressionism in the late 1880s and early 1890s. By 1900, one critic claimed: "Childe Hassam is beyond any doubt the greatest exponent of Impressionism in America." Upon his arrival in Old Lyme in 1903, other members of the Colony, in particular the younger artists, were influenced to explore the use of high-key colors and open brushwork, two hallmarks of Impressionism, to render the local landscape with fleeting effects of light and atmosphere.
Visions of Home
One of the most popular subjects for the American Impressionists at Lyme were images of the home and garden. The profusion of color and texture found in the garden mirrored their artistic interest in rendering fleeting effects of light and shadow. Bright summer light, perhaps filtered through a tree canopy or an open doorway, enlivened their canvases. Several colony members who settled in the area created country homes and gardens that provided suitable subject matter right at hand. Their paintings often portrayed the home and garden with women or children at leisure, contributing to the colonys reputation as an idyllic retreat.
The gardens and home of Florence Griswold provided ample subjects for the artists as well. Its ancient interior offered a memorable assortment of antiques and furnishings, where, as Miss Florence put it, "everything savors of the past." The surrounding grounds were equally inviting, with luxuriant gardens, orchards, and several outbuildings. Rendered from different perspectives, the Lyme Impressionists found in the gardens and homes of Old Lyme a place of serenity and continuity far removed from the complexities of modern urban life.
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