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"A Pretty Fine Old Town": Childe Hassam in Old Lyme


The Florence Griswold Museum announces the opening of an exhibition entitled "'A Pretty Fine Old Town': Childe Hassam in Old Lyme" on June 5 and continuing through September 26, 2004.

Childe Hassam (1858-1935) is widely recognized as the preeminent American Impressionist painter. His arrival at Florence Griswold's Old Lyme boarding house during the summer of 1903 introduced the bright palette and broken brushwork of Impressionism to the Lyme Art Colony. That summer was the start of a long and fruitful relationship that Hassam had with other artists there and with the landscape of Lyme. This new exhibition features over twenty Hassam paintings from museums and private collections and is designed to give a picture of the artist's pivotal contribution to the Lyme Art Colony as a leading center of Impressionism. Support for this exhibition has been received from Xerox and from the Indian Point Foundation. (right: Childe Hassam, June, 1905, oil on canvas; 84 x 84 inches, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York)

"Childe Hassam in Old Lyme" has been timed to coincide with a major Childe Hassam retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this summer. It is also one of three concurrent museum exhibitions in Connecticut to focus on Hassam's influential presence in Connecticut for more than 20 years at the turn of the last century. Joining the Florence Griswold Museum are two other museums in Connecticut ­ the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford and the Bush-Holley Historic Site in Cos Cob. The Museum's web site, http://www.flogris.org provides links to these exhibitions.


Finding Inspiration in Old Lyme

When Hassam first visited Old Lyme in that summer of 1903 he wrote to his artist friend J. Alden Weir in Branchville, Connecticut, "We are up here in another old corner of Connecticut, and it is very much like your country. There are some very large oaks and chestnuts and many fine hedges. Lyme, or Old Lyme as it is usually called, is at the mouth of the Connecticut River and it really is a pretty fine old town." He stayed at Florence Griswold's boarding house, home of the Lyme Art Colony, and now the Florence Griswold Museum. Hassam's charm and easy manner made him a favorite of "Miss Florence," as Griswold was affectionately known. During his frequent trips to Old Lyme over the next several years Hassam was given the best studio on the property, next to the garden overlooking the Lieutenant River. A painting of his studio by Harry Hoffman is in the exhibition. (right: Childe Hassam, Dragon Cloud, Old Lyme, 1903, oil on canvas; 15 1/4 x 19 1/4 inches, New Britain Museum of American Art, Charles and Elizabeth Buchanan Collection)

Hassam's varied work in Old Lyme reveals an artist who experimented endlessly. In another letter to Weir that first summer, Hassam wrote, "I just did two landscapes at Lyme and started and nearly finished two figure things to be finished in the studio. One a figure at an open window and the other a nude. I did work steadily there and I like the place." This exhibition of 22 paintings and works on paper, historic photos, and archival material portrays the breadth of Hassam's Old Lyme work and places it in the context of the rest of his long and prolific career.


Unveiling a Hidden Masterpiece

Hassam was staying at the Florence Griswold House in 1905 when he began to work on the monumental painting June, a highlight of the exhibition. This mural-size (7' x 7') painting portrays three nudes among the mountain laurel bushes on the banks of the Lieutenant River. It is on loan from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and has not been on public view in over 90 years, when an entire gallery was devoted to it at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Although largely forgotten today, "June" was a celebrated painting during Hassam's career, receiving two awards in national exhibitions. The artist himself unabashedly called it "a masterpiece." Art historian Adeline Adams stated that "No Frenchman ever caught the spirit of June as shown in Hassam's trio of nude figures against a background of mountain laurel." In its imposing size and subject matter, "June" is emblematic of Hassam's increasing interest in representing the outdoor nude, often in verdant Arcadian settings. The loan and conservation of this painting was made possible by a grant from the Museum Loan Network. (right: Childe Hassam, A Familiar Tune, c. 1880s, watercolor on composition board; 15 x 21 1/4 inches, Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company)

From the justifiably famous series on the Old Lyme Congregational Church to his figure paintings and interiors, Hassam's nostalgic images made icons out of many New England scenes. "It's as if these paintings are coming home," notes Florence Griswold Museum curator Amy Ellis. "Visitors to Old Lyme can see these paintings in the very setting they were created." Or see how time has changed the New England landscape, as with the example of "Bridge of the Lieutenant River." The 1905 painting of the picturesque bow bridge -- a favorite subject of Hassam's and the other Lyme Art Colony painters -- stands in stark contrast to Interstate 95, which now passes over the river in its stead. (right: Childe Hassam painting "en plein air" on Florence Griswold Museum grounds, Courtesy Florence Griswold Museum )


"Just the Place for High Thinking and Low Living"

An added feature during the exhibition is a tour of the Florence Griswold House, which, according to Hassam, was "just the place for high thinking and low living." Guides will tell engaging stories of Hassam's bohemian summers with Miss Florence and the other artists of the Lyme Art Colony. The time he hurled an orange through one of the windows of the dining room; his impromptu parades down the main street of town, and evenings spent taking supper with "the Hot Air Club," are all brought to life as visitors tour the rooms where he lived and worked. Like many leading artists of the Colony, Hassam left his mark on the doors and walls of the Griswold House. He contributed three paintings to this unique ensemble, including a1903 panel of nude bathers by the Lieutenant River.

A full range of educational programming will accompany this special exhibition, highlighted by performances in July of an original one-act play, "Hassam in the Garden."


Hassam in the Garden

The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme has produced, Hassam in the Garden, a one-act play to be presented outdoors in conjunction with the exhibition "A Pretty Fine Old Town": Childe Hassam. The 30-minute play will be presented July 6 through July 18, 2004 Tuesdays through Saturdays at 11am and 3pm and Sundays at 3pm. The play can be enjoyed by all ages.

Hassam in the Garden takes place in the present day on the grounds of the Museum very near where Childe Hassam's studio once stood. A young girl is going about the business of painting "en plein air" -- in the open air -- when the ghost of Hassam pays a visit. What follows is a supernatural art and history lesson.

The Museum's Director of Education David Rau and Jeffrey Benoit of JB Projects in Essex collaborated on the production. Rau has been interest in museum theater for some time and felt that a play about Childe Hassam at Miss Florence's boarding house was the perfect opportunity to introduce the concept to the shoreline. "Theater brings together various art forms -- visual, movement, literature -- in a way that is accessible to a diverse audience. It is an engaging way to communicate key concepts and educate the public about art and history." Theater is being used in museums across the country to explain and make engaging everything from scientific principles to zoological issues. The decision to base a play on Childe Hassam seemed natural. "Childe Hassam is one of the America's most loved impressionists, and he was quite a character! There are wonderful anecdotes of the time he stayed in Old Lyme. We had a lot of material to draw upon including some original letters that gave us insight into how Hassam used words." The idea to present the play out of doors very near where Hassam's actual studio once stood seems like a fitting tribute to a space so dear to the story of the Lyme Art Colony.

The title role of Childe Hassam, will be played by Edward Furs of New York City. Eddie has appeared in several off-Broadway productions including "The Dance of Death" with Geraldine Page and Jose Ferrer. The double role of Nana, Baily's grandmother who volunteers as a docent at the Museum, and Mary, an Irish maid who worked for Miss Florence, will be played by Jean Liuzzi of New York. Jean's expertise is musical theatre and she has toured nationally in a production of "The Music Man." Lillian Samantha Rigling of Avon, will play the part of Baily, a young teenager and aspiring artist who is visiting her grandmother in Old Lyme. Lillian has been in several Hartford Stage productions including "Trip to Bountiful," and "A Christmas Carol" as well as "Annie" at The Bushnell.


Editor's note: One of America's earliest art centers was the Lyme art colony; also see The Lyme Art Colony: An American Giverny. and another article on the Lyme Art Colony.

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rev. 6/28/04

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