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Julia Bourbois 25 September 2023
min Read15 September 2022
Florence Griswold wasn’t an artist or even an art collector, but she was a key figure in American Impressionism. The New York Times even called her the movement’s “patron saint.”
Florence Griswold (1850-1937) came from an upper-class but financially-unstable family in Old Lyme, Connecticut. By the time she inherited her family’s home in the 1890s, there wasn’t any money left to support her and her sick sister. So, Griswold used one of the few money-making strategies open to unmarried women of her social status – hosting boarders. And it was the perfect occupation for her. By all accounts, she was an excellent hostess. Her home was often in disrepair, but it was filled with her generosity and positive spirit.
Already, I could see she was a born hostess, with that lovely air and remarkable gift of making her guests feel that it was their home, and she was visiting them. And one seemed to feel that sunshine followed her wherever she went – perhaps because she was forever trying to help others.
Arthur Heming about Florence Griswold. Miss Florence and the Artists of Old Lyme. 2nd ed. Old Lyme, CT: Florence Griswold Museum, 2013. P.23.
Around the time that Griswold opened her boarding house, some American painters returned from France, where they had visited artist colonies like in Giverny and Barbizon. These were great places for camaraderie and painting rural landscapes en plein air (outdoors). Upon returning home, American artists wanted to form colonies of their own.
Tonalist landscape painter Henry Ward Ranger thought that scenic New England would be the perfect setting for a colony. When he stumbled upon Old Lyme and Florence Griswold’s boarding house in 1899, he knew that he had found the right place. The small town was a peaceful, old-fashioned spot to get away from modern city life. It had a beautiful landscape along the Lieutenant river. To top it all off, creative and well-educated Griswold was a sympathetic host to artists. Ranger returned with his friends, who rented rooms for the summer, and the Old Lyme Art Colony was born.
Every summer, more artists came. American Impressionists soon replaced the Tonalists. Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Carleton Wiggins, Gifford Beal, William Chadwick, Matilda Browne, and many others received warm welcomes at Miss Griswold’s house. She somehow found enough space to accommodate everyone, and she converted outbuildings into artists’ studios.
It seems to have been a wonderful, idyllic place to spend the summer. The artists worked during the day and socialized in the evening. Florence Griswold was a much-loved hostess. In his charming book Miss Florence and the Artists of Old Lyme, colony member Arthur Heming remembers Miss Griswold as a kind, nurturing, Mary Poppins-type figure. He reports that she once cheerfully responded to a broken window by celebrating the nice breeze it allowed into her dining room.
The artists loved Miss Griswold every bit as much as she loved them. Although her lodging was in high demand for several decades in the early-20th century, she was perpetually unable to turn a profit. This was because her great generosity typically outpaced her checkbook. The entire town of Old Lyme prospered thanks to the art colony, but Miss Griswold fell deeply into debt, and her house decayed into further disrepair.
When the stress of her financial situation began to take its toll on her, artists who benefitted from her generosity decided to show their gratitude. They planned to secretly fix up her beloved house the way she had always dreamed. Many people happily donated time and money to repair what they called “the Holy House”. After persuading Griswold to take a few weeks’ vacation, they fully renovated the interior and exterior.
They repaired the roof and shingles, re-wallpapered and carpeted bedrooms, bought new furniture and wall coverings, and more. A local judge paid off her debts. When Florence first saw her refurbished house, she reportedly cried with shock and happiness. Later on, her allies banded together once again to buy her home, both to preserve it and to give her financial stability in her final years.
So you see, at first the artists adopted Lyme, then Lyme adopted the artists, and now, today, Lyme and art are synonymous.
Florence Griswold, 1937. Quote from the Florence Griswold Museum’s website.
Miss Florence’s home is now the Florence Griswold Museum. There, visitors can tour the house, enjoy the landscape, and learn about the remarkable legacy of this woman who did so much for American Impressionism. The museum also contains some great American art, including works that are part of the building itself.
Following a European tradition of artists painting the doors of their lodgings, Old Lyme Colony artists honored Miss Griswold by painting scenes on her doors and the wood panels in her dining room. Their artistic gift to her included over 40 landscapes, still lives, animals, figure paintings, and one lighthearted frieze over the fireplace. This truly special collection is still intact today.
Florence Griswold’s home and gardens, Old Lyme, and the surrounding landscape also appear in many American Impressionist paintings scattered across the country. The most famous is Willard Metcalf’s May Night, which shows both the house and a female figure who is surely Florence herself.
Metcalf first offered Griswold the painting as a rent payment, but she turned it down. Always inclined to put others before herself, she thought he would be better off showing it in an exhibition. And she was right. May Night was Metcalf’s first major success, and it’s the reason that many people have seen Miss Griswold and her home without even realizing it.
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