Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Florence Griswold – “Patron Saint” of American Impressionism

Florence Griswold
Florence Griswold. Courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Impressionism

Florence Griswold – “Patron Saint” of American Impressionism

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, Florence 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.

Florence with Flowers
Florence Griswold. Courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

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.

The Old Lyme Art Colony

Miss Florence's by Matilda Browne
Matilda Browne, Miss Florence’s. Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

Around the time that Florence opened her boarding house, some American painters returned from France, where they had visited artist colonies like 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 Florence 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.

Historic Artists Front Griswold House
Old Lyme Art Colony artists sitting on the front steps of Florence Griswold’s house. Courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

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 Florence’s house. Florence somehow found enough space to accommodate everyone, and she converted outbuildings into artists’ studios.

Hassam Painting Apple Trees
Childe Hassam (1859-1935) painting on Florence’s property in 1904. Courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

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 Florence 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.

How the Artists Helped Miss Florence

Florence Griswold by Alphonse Jongers
Alphonse Jongers, The Harpist (Portrait of Florence Griswold), 1903. Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT. Courtesy of Florence Griswold Museum.

The artists loved Florence 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 Florence 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 had 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 Florence 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.

Florence Griswold House Front Historic
Some of Florence’s guests on the front porch. Courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Florence Griswold’s Legacy


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.

Florence Griswold House by Joe Standart
The Florence Griswold House in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Photo by Joe Standart.

Following a European tradition of artists painting the doors of their lodgings, Old Lyme Colony artists honored Miss Florence by painting scenes on her doors and the wood panels in her dining room. Their artistic gift to her included over forty landscapes, still lives, animals, figure paintings, and one lighthearted frieze over the fireplace. This truly special collection is still intact today.

Florence Griswold Dining Room Right
Florence Griswold’s painted dining room (right side) as it looks today. Photo by Joe Standart.

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 Florence 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 Florence and her home without even realizing it.

May Night by Willard Metcalf
Willard Metcalf, May Night, 1906. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

Sources:
Our History“. Old Lyme, CT: Florence Griswold Museum.
Andersen, Jeffrey. “Introduction to the Lyme Art Colony“. Old Lyme, CT: Florence Griswold Museum.
Cummings, Hildegard. “Miss Florence Griswold“. Old Lyme, CT: Florence Griswold Museum.
Heming, Arthur and James Stevenson (illus.). Miss Florence and the Artists of Old Lyme. 2nd ed. Old Lyme, CT: Florence Griswold Museum, 2013.
Jaques, Susan. A Love for the Beautiful: Discovering America’s Hidden Art Museums. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2012. P. 28-33.

Alexandra believes that enjoying the art of the past is the closest she can get to time travel, only much safer. When she’s not being an art historian, she can usually be found ice skating and dancing. Visit her at ascholarlyskater.com.

Comments

More in Impressionism

  • 20th century

    Impressionism Features in Bombay Progressive Artists Group

    By

    Progressive Artists Group (PAG) was an answer to the existing Indian institutional structure of exhibitions in the mid-20th century. It was a collective primarily formed by FN Souza, SH Raza, KH Ara, HA Gade, MF Hussain and Sadanand Bakre. Later, Vasudeo Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta,...

  • Impressionism

    Paint Me Like One of Your French Girls: The Life and Business of Agostina Segatori

    By

    Agostina Segatori’s face is most widely recognized in the works of key artists between 1860 and 1887. Her Italian features inspired many painters in Paris at the time, leading to an enviable career. However, her achievements are far greater than her modelling success. Navigating the web...

  • Artist

    Lise Tréhot. The Mysterious Beauty from Renoir’s Paintings

    By

    Born into a humble French family, Lise Tréhot (1848–1922) was an artist’s model who posed exclusively for Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). Lise posed for almost all of the female figures depicted by Renoir from 1866 until 1872. Incidentally, it was Clémence Tréhot, Lise’s older sister and lover...

  • Impressionism

    Four Women Impressionists You Shouldn’t Forget

    By

    Impressionism is not only limited to Monet, Renoir, and Degas. There were four women Impressionists who were all the members of the same circle and exhibited works that were as innovative as those of their male counterparts: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, and Marie Bracquemond....

  • Artists' Stories

    5 Impressionist Gossips Which Will Make You Feel They Staged a Soap Opera

    By

    I know, it is a bit rude to discuss private lives of people. But when it comes to the Impressionists, knowing their relationships, connections, sudden twists of fate, and often difficult characters makes the whole story about them much more interesting. And we can see them...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy