The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920

June 3 - September 18, 2016 



 

The Artist's Garden

An artist's interest in gardening is to produce pictures without brushes," Anna Lea Merritt observed in her 1908 book An Artist's Garden Tended, Painted, Described. A painter and avid gardener, Merritt appreciated the creative potential of mixing art-making with horticulture. Like Merritt, many American Impressionists combined their devotion to painting flowers with the practice of planting and tending gardens -- a pursuit they shared with fellow members of the nation's middle class. The "old-fashioned garden" or "grandmother's garden" became a symbol of national identity, evoking a humble but dignified past that appealed to Americans anxious about the pace of modern society, industrialization, and urbanization. For them, the garden signified a domestic enclave for the cultivation of traditional social values and natural beauty.

Artists' gardens were personal laboratories for Impressionist studies of light and color. They were outdoor classrooms where painters could teach their students about form and composition. They were the sites of art colonies, such as the one hosted by Florence Griswold in Old Lyme, where artists came together to support and learn from each other in bucolic settings removed from the stresses of the professional art world. These works conjure up the artist's garden as a rejuvenating retreat and source of artistic inspiration.

 
 
11. Daniel Garber (1880-1958)
Sun in Summer, 1919
Oil on canvas, 52 1/4 x 56 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of the artist, 1945.14.2
 
Daniel Garber is famed as the founder of the Pennsylvania Impressionist school -- a group of artists who worked and taught in the greater Philadelphia and Bucks County region. He received his plein-air training from Hugh Henry Breckenridge and Thomas Anshutz at their summer Darby School, where students were taught the importance of experimentation. Garber developed a distinctive mosaic-like touch, favoring a palette of blues, greens, and yellows. Garber's own depictions of his home and garden along Cuttalossa Creek in Bucks County were perhaps the signature subjects of his career. When he moved there in 1907, he transformed the converted mill building into a residence surrounded by the lush gardens seen here.
 
 
12. Harry L. Hoffman (1871-1964)
Childe Hassam's Studio, 1909
Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of the Artist
1955.1
 
Beginning in 1899, Florence Griswold welcomed artist Henry Ward Ranger to her boardinghouse in Old Lyme and when he returned the following year with friends, an art colony was born. The informal atmosphere and New England village setting attracted painters, as did the beauty of the gardens and grounds. To support the artists' work during trips to the country to sketch en plein air, Florence allowed them to take over various ramshackle buildings on her property, or to adapt spaces in the barns for use as studios. Here, painter Harry Hoffman depicts the lean-to near the banks of the Lieutenant River that was used by the Impressionist Childe Hassam during his visits to Old Lyme. Hassam described the studio as "just the place for high thinking and low living." Stepping right outside the door, he could paint Florence's orchard of blossoming fruit trees, one of which cascades over the studio in Hoffman's view.
 
[photo of Hassam painting apple blossoms with studio in background with caption: Childe Hassam painting near his studio in Florence Griswold's orchard, ca. 1903. Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum.]
 
 
13. Benedict Colewood
Miss Florence's Vegetable Garden
Oil on canvas
Collection of Frank Jarrabeck
 
Nothing is known about Benedict Colewood, who painted this depiction of Florence Griswold's garden. He may have been one of the many students who came to Old Lyme for summer art classes run by painters who stayed at the Griswold boardinghouse. With its lawn, flower beds and table garden, the Griswold property offered countless paintable subjects to these students and their professional mentors. Here, Colewood focuses on the more agricultural aspects of the gardens, rather than on ornamental plantings as a backdrop for outdoor leisure. Although Lyme artists typically favored unpopulated landscapes, Colewood features a woman -- likely Florence Griswold -- at work.
 
 
14. Breta Longacre (1887-1923)
Untitled [View of the Griswold House Barn], 1914
Oil on wood, 10 x 12 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift in honor of Eleanor Revill, daughter of Breta Longacre
2015.7
 
Breta Longacre was introduced to the Lyme Art Colony by her older sister Lydia Longacre (1870-1951), a painter of miniature portraits in watercolor on ivory. Breta painted on Florence Griswold's property beginning in 1913, capturing views of the Lieutenant River and one of the barns, seen here. Miss Florence adapted the outbuildings for use by the artists, installing a dormer in the carriage barn to light the studios inside. Working outdoors on a small wood panel, Longacre depicts the barn as seen from the orchard, looking east toward Miss Florence's boardinghouse and the distinctive yellow wellhouse.
 
 
15. Edmund Greacen (1876-1949)
The Old Garden, ca. 1912
Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Mrs. Edmund Greacen, Jr.
1974.1
 
Upon his return from the art colony in Giverny, Greacen made his way to Florence Griswold's boardinghouse in Old Lyme in search of both a community of artists and the sort of garden motifs he had favored in France. He would paint the Griswold garden several times. Begun by Florence's parents in the mid nineteenth century and maintained by the art colony's matron with her hired helper, it embodies the aesthetic of the "old-fashioned" or "grandmother's" garden; heirloom flowers and overgrown, unstructured plantings create an environment seemingly insulated from the pressures of contemporary life. Greacen's lush silvery greens and softly blended brushwork reinforce the garden's dreamy mood.
 
During your visit, be sure to take a walk through Miss Florence's restored gardens. The Rafal Landscape Center just up the path from this gallery contains an exhibition about her garden's history.
 
 
16. Willard Metcalf (1858-1925)
Kalmia, 1905
Oil on canvas, 34 x 34 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Museum Purchase through The Nancy B. Krieble Acquisition Fund, with the support of Geddes and Kathy Parsons; The Dorothy Clark Archibald Acquisition Fund; Helen E. Krieble; V. J. Dowling; Max and Sally Belding; Richard and Barbara Booth; Mr. and Mrs. David W. Dangremond; Charles and Irene Hamm; William E. Phillips and Barbara Smith; Andy Baxter; Charles T. Clark; Jonathan L. Cohen; Jim and Hedy Korst; Mr. and Mrs. S. Van Vliet Lyman; Clement C. and Elizabeth Moore; Robert and Betsey Webster; Renée Wilson; Peter and Karen Cummins, and a small group of members
2009.10
 
In the early years of the Lyme Art Colony, few subjects generated more interest than mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). This native species grew in abundance in southeastern Connecticut, an area described as "one of the finest laurel gardens in the world" in a 1914 newspaper. Enthusiasm for mountain laurel among Lyme artists and the general public at the turn of the last century derived, in part, from the perception of it as a resilient native plant whose beautiful flowers, evergreen leaves, and durable wood embodied New England traits. During the colonial revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, admirers praised mountain laurel in these patriotic terms: "Like liberty, it is hardy and will persist in the most adverse conditions." Gardeners were urged to plant kalmia to promote these values.
 
Here, Metcalf focuses on laurel growing beside Old Lyme's Lieutenant River, just upstream from Florence Griswold's house. Representing the plant's short-lived flowering prompted him to experiment. The contrast between the smoothly painted background and the energetic brushwork in the laurel reveals Metcalf's transformation into a full-fledged Impressionist.
 
 
17. Matilda Browne (1869-1947)
Clark Voorhees House
Oil on panel, 11 3/4 x 15 7/8 inches
Florence Griswold Museum
X1972.219
 
Matilda Browne made a specialty of depicting the relationship between old-fashioned houses and their gardens. Here, we see the porch of Ker Guen, a Dutch colonial home on the banks of the Connecticut River in Old Lyme bought and restored by Browne's fellow Lyme Art Colony painter Clark Voorhees. The duck topiary by the porch adds a whimsical touch that acknowledges Voorhees's love of hunting for waterfowl.
 
Browne also painted a larger canvas depicting colorful blossoms in Ker Guen's riverside garden, arranged by their artist owner like pigments on a palette (see above). Voorhees' version of his garden appears in a canvas by his own hand in the next gallery.
 
[image here with caption: Matilda Browne, In Voorhees' Garden, 1914. Oil on canvas. Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, 2002.1.18. This painting may be seen in the New York Botanical Garden's exhibition Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, through September 11.]
 
 
18. Wilson Henry Irvine (1869-1936)
Garden of Saints Rest, the William Owen Goodman House, Westbrook, Connecticut, ca. 1925
Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Ariane Dewey Dannasch
2010.10
 
 
Chicago lumber merchant William O. Goodman and his wife Erna began summering at Quotonset Beach in Westbrook, Connecticut, before the turn of the century. His home, Saints Rest, housed an extensive collection of European and American pewter and other decorative arts. The couple's artistic sensibilities extended outdoors, where they commissioned a garden with Italianate touches.
 
Like the Goodmans, artist Wilson Henry Irvine divided his time between Chicago and Connecticut. With its riot of colorful plantings, his patrons' garden provided an ideal subject for Irvine's experiments with a prismatic technique, in which he broke light down into its constituent colors, making them appear to vibrate on the canvas.
 
 
19. Theodore van Soelen (1890-1964)
Summer Morning, ca. 1915
Oil on canvas, 36 x 34 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, John Lambert Fund, 1916.7
 
Summer Morning pays homage to Daniel Garber, Theodore van Soelen's teacher. Van Soelen includes the artist and his wife in front of their home, Cuttalossa, which they named after the creek adjacent to their property in Lumberville, Pennsylvania. Working in lighter pigments against a darker ground, van Soelen flattens the plantings, buildings, and trees into an overall pattern that mimics the unmodulated effect of bright sunlight.
 
 
20. Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930)
Piping Shepherd, 1896
Oil on wood, 26 1/8 x 21 5/8 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Henry D. Gilpin Fund, 1899.2
 
Philadelphia-born Anna Lea Merritt moved to London in 1870 and built a reputation as a painter and theorist of garden design. With its nude shepherd boy playing the Pan flute (named after a Greek god of nature), this picture presents an idyllic vision of the landscape as a timeless space of beauty, music, and poetry. Such dreamy fantasies of rustic gardens were popular in these decades, as were garden statues of winged putti, dancing bacchantes, and other mythological figures that could transform an ordinary backyard into a modern-day extension of ancient Greece and Rome.
 
 
21. John LaFarge (1835-1910)
 
Hollyhocks and Morning Glories, ca. 1884
Opalescent stained glass, lead came, and wood sash, Framed: 45 x 31 1/4 x 7 in.
 
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore T. Newbold in memory of Louis I. Kahn, 1976.7.1
 
John LaFarge embraced the principles of Impressionism and found a way to express them in the medium of glass. In 1879 he developed a new technique for making colorful, shimmering windows of opalescent glass. This semi-opaque glass is composed of numerous suspended particles that reflect and scatter light, creating a distinctive iridescent glow. By layering and shaping glass of different colors and thicknesses, La Farge created three-dimensional decorative effects, ideal for representing delicate forms like flowers.
 
 
22. Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930)
An Artist's Garden, ca. 1908
Oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 24 inches, framed
Private Collection
 
Through her paintings and books, Anna Lea Merritt became a recognized expert on artistic gardening in both the United States and Great Britain. While she painted in a traditional realist style, her prose relies on poetic, impressionistic language to describe the transitory beauty of her garden throughout the seasons. According to Merritt, being a gardener made one a better artist, and she called her garden a teacher and an outdoor studio all in one. For her, Impressionism was more than an artistic technique, it was also a stylistic approach to gardening. The title of this painting, inscribed on its back, suggests that it may be a study for one of the lithographs published as illustrations in Merritt's 1908 book An Artist's Garden, seen below.
 
 
23. Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930). An Artist's Garden, Tended, Painted, and Described, 2nd edition. London: George Allen & Sons, 1910. Florence Griswold Museum
 
 
24. Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955)
Water Lilies, modeled 1913
Bronze, 29 1/4 h.
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rhea Talley Stewart
2000.13
 
Water Lilies represented a turning point in Vonnoh's career. Its popularity encouraged her to shift her energies from small bronzes of mothers and children to larger outdoor garden sculptures and fountains. Vonnoh recognized the needs and desires of a new community of art consumers and gardeners who sought out nymph-like figures such as Water Lilies. As Mary Fanton Roberts wrote in 1916, "For every type and every size of garden, there are perfect little figures of laughing children, of funny animals or lovely spirits to keep us in remembrance of our own childhood days, those golden days when we 'almost ' saw fairies sleeping in flowers or riding upon butterflies." The sculpture's modest size allowed its placement amid flowers to surprise people encountering it in a garden.
 
The artist modeled Water Lilies after the daughter of painter Frank Vincent DuMond. Vonnoh, her husband Robert Vonnoh, and the DuMond family were members of the Lyme Art Colony who also established their own homes and gardens in Lyme.
 
[photo with caption: Garden installation of Water Lilies, in Mattie Edwards Hewitt, The Garden of Mrs. William Steele Gray, Greenwich, Connecticut, ca. 1921. Garden Magazine 34 (January 1922): 226.]
 
 
25. Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980)
Joy of the Waters, 1920
Bronze, 42 1/4 inches high
Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.58
 
Piped for use as a fountain, Joy of the Waters could have been installed indoors or outdoors, in keeping with the enthusiasm for garden sculpture after about 1910. Just as Impressionist painters sought to capture the spontaneity of nature in the garden, Frishmuth's leaping figure acts out the exuberant movement of jetting water, icy to the touch.

 

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