Do you ever stop and wonder what it is that you were put on this earth to do? For Florence Griswold, the answer was art.
By Justin Shatwell
Jul 07 2016
A portrait of Florence Griswold in her garden c.1915.Photo Credit : Courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum
Do you ever stop and wonder what it is that you were put on this earth to do? I think we probably all have at some point.
As a reporter, I meet a lot of people, many of whom are doing some fairly interesting things. But it’s only occasionally that I walk away from an interview with the sense that I’d just met someone who’d truly found their calling. Those are always the most fascinating conversations. Their passion is infectious, their insights profound. It feels like you’re talking to the protagonist of a novel. They just seem to fit so well into the world around them, even when they’re struggling. We often talk about the difference between a job and a career, but some lucky people find quests.
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of research on Florence Griswold (pictured on the right) who, between 1900 and 1936, hosted one of the most storied art colonies in American history at her home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. She’s one of those people who kind of stumbled into the history books. When it all started, she had no particular artistic talent, nor did she know a lot of prominent artists. She didn’t even have much money, unlike the other great female art patrons of the time like Isabella Stewart Gardener or Electra Havemeyer Webb.
All she had to offer was her home, a tattered, dilapidated estate that was mortgaged three times over. The carpets were frayed, the façade was crumbling, and the whole place was utterly infested with cats (which she loved). But in 1899 she was approached by the painter Henry Ward Ranger, who had fallen in love with Old Lyme. His dream was to begin an art colony for landscape painters reminiscent of the Barbizon school of France, but he needed a place to base it. Just like that, history was made.
But while fate may have literally knocked on her door, Griswold didn’t just sit back and enjoy her good fortune. She ran with the opportunity. She became a champion for the artists who passed through her doors, drumming up attention in the press. She sold their works in her front hall and helped organize a yearly show, which, during its heyday, attracted deep-pocketed collectors from across the country.
She also became their friend. While her family fortune was a distant memory, Griswold had aristocratic roots. Descended from two governors and daughter of a ship captain, she knew how to set a nice table and entertain her guests. She may have been two steps from the poorhouse, but she didn’t seem the least bit intimidated when rubbing shoulders with some of the finest artists America had to offer. She ate with them, drank with them, and shared ideas with them. Occasionally the night would devolve into rollicking sing-alongs in her parlor and she’d be right there with them, banging out melodies on the piano.
She was like a mother figure to the artists she hosted, or perhaps a crazy aunt, but regardless, she was beloved. Some of her more successful tenants paid to have her home completely renovated as a surprise gift. She was routinely asked to attend shows and gallery openings in New York and once she even got an invite to an inauguration. Woodrow Wilson’s wife Ellen had taken art lessons at the colony and they became dear friends.
Even though she wasn’t a painter herself, Griswold was the heart and soul of the Old Lyme Art Colony. Long after Ranger stopped attending, she kept the movement alive and vibrant. It’s notable that even though the likes of Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf painted some of their finest works in Old Lyme, when boosters opened a museum to commemorate the colony in 1936, they named it for Florence Griswold, not them.
Clearly Griswold found her calling, but what is most fascinating to me about her story is that she was 49 years old when she first met Ranger. Can you imagine it? She’d lived almost five decades before she found her life’s work.
Her story is a testament to how wonderful and bizarre life can be. It’s a reminder that our life stories aren’t over until they put us in the ground. No matter how old we are, everyday comes with the possibility that perhaps some new passion may sink its hooks into us and drag us on an adventure. On any given day, we may be called to some new purpose and the next chapter of our life may be the most wonderful and meaningful of them all.
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.