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Historical Background on the Lyme Art Colony


The Lyme Art Colony was "just the place for high thinking and low living."
-- Artist Childe Hassam in a letter dated July 3, 1905


Old Lyme, Connecticut was the center of a community of American artists who created one of the country's best-known art colonies that thrived during the early decades of the 20th century. William Gerdts, in his landmark book, American Impressionism (Abbeville Press, 1984), referred to the Lyme Art Colony as "the most famous Impressionist-oriented art colony in America." The American art colony movement flourished after the Civil War until the 1930s. Based upon French precedents like the famed artist communities of Barbizon and Giverny, colonies like the one at Old Lyme began to develop across America. These picturesque retreats were outside the hustle and bustle of urban centers and provided painters with bountiful subject matter, inexpensive lodgings, and the camaraderie of other artists. Employing a variety of styles, the Old Lyme artists created works that celebrated village, farm, and rural life and conveyed a sense of place distinct to southern New England. The Lyme Art Colony fostered an identity for both the town and the state of Connecticut as a crucible for the development of Impressionism in America.


(above: Childe Hassam painting en plein air, c. 1903, Florence Griswold Museum. Hassam painting: Childe Hassam painting by his studio on the grounds of the Florence Griswold House. Hassam arrived in Old Lyme in 1903, and brought with him the style of Impressionism and painting outside, seen here.)


(above: Will Howe Foote painting en plein air, c. 1910, Florence Griswold Museum. Foote painting en plein air: Will Howe Foote on the grounds of the Griswold House.)


From 1899 until Miss Florence's death in 1937, over 200 artists, including many leading figures in the American art world, stayed at the Griswold House. Today, museums, galleries, and private collectors worldwide seek works by these artists and the Florence Griswold Museum is widely recognized for its portrayal of the art colony movement in America.


(above: Will Howe Foote, Wiggle Drawing, n.d., Florence Griswold Museum. Wiggle Drawing: Wiggle drawings were a game that the artists played where one artist would draw a number of "wiggles" or random lines on a paper and then pass to another artist to finish. Here, Will Howe Foote has turned the four blue wiggles into a drawing of an artist heading out of doors for a day of painting.)


A New School of American Painters

The prominent landscape artist Henry Ward Ranger arrived in 1899, shortly after Florence Griswold had decided to take in boarders to lighten the financial burden of caring for her family home. Ranger, having recently returned from painting in Europe, was eager to start a colony modeled on the French Barbizon. He saw in Old Lyme the ideal setting for establishing a new American "tonal" school of landscape painting. He found Florence Griswold's home the perfect place to settle. Conveniently located between the cultural hubs of Boston and New York, the Griswold House and Old Lyme recreated many of the features found in artists' haunts abroad -- inexpensive lodgings, congenial company, and paintable scenery.

Under Ranger's leadership, Old Lyme was, for a time, designated the "American Barbizon." With the arrival of Childe Hassam in 1903, the colony's focus shifted from Tonalism to Impressionism and became known as the "American Giverny," a reference to the French artists' colony where Claude Monet lived.

In the years to come, other artists such as Willard Metcalf, Matilda Browne, Will Howe Foote, William Chadwick and others would transform the stately Late Georgian mansion into the home of the Lyme Art Colony. Inspired by the beauty of the New England countryside and charmed by Miss Florence's gracious hospitality, the colony flourished for over three decades.


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