Shannon Chapman captures a bend in the Lieutenant River as it flows past the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum, once a private estate that a century ago hosted many of America’s early Tonalists and Impressionists.
Photo Credit : Sara Gray
On the banks of the Lieutenant River, the light can change in an instant. One moment the river’s thick bed of reeds is a field of gold, backlit and brilliant. The next, a passing cloud drapes it in shadow and the tone mellows to earthy hues of green and brown.
Beneath the shade of an elm tree, several families attempt to capture the scene. One mother, in a speckled smock, frenetically mixes her paints in a vain attempt to match Mother Nature’s shifting palette. Her young daughter opts for a less-elusive subject, filling her canvas instead with a single crimson bird standing proudly in profile.
It’s a simple thing—just a fun activity to fill a Sunday afternoon—but this family’s dabblings have placed them in vaunted company. For almost 40 years at the beginning of the 20th century, legions of artists spread their easels here along this lazy river (perhaps even under this same elm) and tried their hand at capturing the idyllic peacefulness of Old Lyme, Connecticut.
At the time, American art collectors couldn’t get enough of New England. Disenchanted with the soot and congestion of industrial America, they became enthralled by the country’s colonial past and would pay handsomely for images that captured the essence of that simpler age. Artists flocked to New England like miners to a gold rush, scouring every seaside hamlet in search of that one perfect village that time had forgotten. When they found Old Lyme, they stopped.
It offered landscape painters a little bit of everything: the seacoast, the Connecticut River estuary, and seemingly boundless cattle fields studded with old-growth trees and rocky outcroppings that looked as though they’d been arranged by some giant still-life painter. In a letter to his agent, Henry Ward Ranger, who “discovered” Old Lyme in 1899, gushed over the “knarled [sic] oaks” and “low rolling country” and declared the village a place “just waiting to be painted.”
He returned the following summer with a cadre of his friends and set up shop at the home of Florence Griswold, an aging, unwed Connecticut aristocrat whose family fortune had long since vanished. Her tattered estate became the unlikely home of one of the most storied art colonies of the era. For the next 36 years, as many as 15 artists could be found living under her roof at any given time. The likes of Willard Metcalf, Bruce Crane, and Matilda Browne would spend their days painting in Griswold’s fields and then pass their evenings sharing ideas at her dinner table and drinks in her parlor. Sometimes the evenings would descend into rollicking sing-alongs, and Griswold would be right there with them, banging out melodies on the piano. Childe Hassam, possibly America’s most accomplished Impressionist, remembered the colony as “just the place for high thinking and low living.”
Today, the halls are much quieter. Docents at what is now the Florence Griswold Museum greet visitors at the door as Miss Florence once did, recounting tales of the colony’s glory days as they stroll through the house. Upstairs, the artists’ bunks have long since been removed, replaced by galleries of their works. One painting, a snowy image of some of Griswold’s barns, hangs playfully beside the window where Edward Gregory Smith must have sat while creating it. With the slightest turn of the head, you can shift your view from the present to 100 years ago and back again, and so little has changed that you have a momentary sense that time has stopped.
But unfortunately that moment passes all too quickly. Outside, the peace of Griswold’s gardens is disturbed by the drone of I-95, no more than a quarter-mile away. Across the Lieutenant River, the rear of a shopping complex peeks rudely through the trees. And all around Old Lyme, the picturesque cattle fields have been swallowed by resurgent forests. The “knarled” oaks and rocky outcroppings that first captured Ranger’s imagination are now hidden behind thick curtains of new-growth pine. But rather than mourn what has been lost, the museum encourages visitors to take a more philosophical view.
“We’re not promising time travel,” says Jeffrey Andersen, the museum’s longtime director, explaining that most of the scenes captured by those long-ago artists have vanished. But that doesn’t mean that the spirit of their work is gone.
The Tonalist and Impressionist artists who flocked to Old Lyme were keenly aware of how fleeting beauty could be. Wind, weather, the angle of the sun—the elements can combine in infinite variations. The way the light plays across a field on one gorgeous afternoon may never occur in exactly the same way again. So the artists painted en plein air, which is just a fancy way of saying “outside.” They lugged their canvases into the landscape in search of the perfect vista, to record not just what it looked like, but also how it felt to be there in that moment.
The museum is designed to impart similar revelations. “I love to think that this is a place where people can lose themselves in thought,” Andersen says. He and his staff are always coming up with programs to funnel visitors out of their galleries and onto the well-kept grounds, where they can lounge beneath a tree or stroll the gentle slope to the river, and maybe, just maybe, experience a moment in which art, history, and nature combine to show them something amazing. It may not be the landscape the masters painted, but it still has the power to move those who stop to admire it. The beauty of the past has ceded to the beauty of the
And should you be holding a paintbrush when inspiration strikes, all the better. Every Sunday the museum passes out free paints and canvases to its visitors and encourages them to step into the shoes of the artists who came before. It doesn’t matter whether you produce a masterpiece or not. It’s simply an invitation to be still, open your eyes, and chase the beauty of a moment passing.
For more on the museum, visit: flogris.org.
SEE MORE:Old Lyme and Lyme, Connecticut | Photographs