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Who was Florence Griswold?
Thanks in large measure to Florence Griswold (1850-1937), what is known today as the Florence Griswold Museum has, for more than a century, been the home of the Lyme Art Colony and America's center of Impressionism.
One of four children of a ship captain, "Miss Florence," as artists and friends knew her, was born on Christmas Day, 1850, and raised in the finest house on the main street of a thriving Connecticut town. Old Lyme, then a center of shipbuilding and commerce, was established in the early 1600s and counted the Griswolds among the town's oldest families. Captain Robert Griswold purchased their Late Georgian-style mansion, built in 1817 on a fourteen-acre estate, for his bride Helen Powers in 1841. The family's and the town's fortunes reversed, however, as a result of the Civil War and the advent of steam-powered vessels. To survive financially, the Griswolds turned their home into a school for young women and eventually a summer boarding house. By the end of the 1890s Florence Griswold was the only family member left in her homestead. Soon she would transform it and cause it to flourish in unexpected ways.
During the summer of 1899, the artist Henry Ward Ranger, having recently returned from Europe, saw in Old Lyme an ideal setting for establishing a new American school of landscape painting. He found in Miss Florence's home and her hospitality the perfect place to settle. Other artists followed suit and the Lyme Art Colony was born. With the arrival of Childe Hassam in 1903, some of the country's most accomplished artists gathered in her home for meals and accommodations and spent days painting the local countryside. Florence Griswold became the very soul of the colony, devoting herself to the artists by creating an atmosphere where, as one artist put it, "every day is so in line with work." She helped to sell their paintings, tolerated their high jinks, and lent respectability to this bohemian group of painters. Over the next decade, the House became the center of America's best-known Impressionist art colony.
Embodying generosity and optimism, Miss Florence stimulated a remarkable congeniality among a generation of America's finest painters. By the time of her death in 1937, this uncommon woman had established a colony that changed the identity of a small coastal village and shaped the careers of many artists. She fulfilled, in every way, her self-described role as "the keeper of the artist colony."
(above: Alphonse Jongers, The Harpist, 1903, Florence Griswold Museum. Jongers, Harpist: This is an iconic image of Florence Griswold playing her harp. A gift from her father Captain Robert H. Griswold, this harp remained an important object in the Griswold House until Florence's death in 1937. It was sold at her estate sale, but was fortunately discovered at an antique shop years later by the artist Harry Hoffman and returned to the house.)
(above: Florence Griswold with Phlox, c. 1925. Florence with Phlox: Florence Griswold loved to garden and filled her home with fresh cut flowers. Here she is shown later in life, amongst her flowers.)
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