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Slant of Light: An Artist Colony Turned Old Lyme Museum

Florence Griswold was not very good with money. Her heart was just too big to be bothered with it. Born on Christmas Day in 1850 to a once successful sea captain, Robert Griswold, and his wife, Helen Powers, “Miss Florence,” as she is affectionately referred to, was raised in what was considered the finest home on Main Street in Old Lyme. At that time, like many other coastal Connecticut towns of its time, Old Lyme bustled with shipbuilding and commerce of all nature. The home itself was built on 12 acres in 1817 and still stands as the anchor to the Old Lyme “Cultural Corner.”

“We’re really more of an art town than we are a shore town,” said Cheryl Poirier, the Museum’s Marketing Associate, “even though we are right on the shore.” It’s hard to argue. Old Lyme boasts 3 different art galleries: The Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, which is celebrating it’s 100th year this year; the town’s two prominent inns (Bee & Thistle and the Old Lyme Inn) which feature prominent local artists’ work on a rotating basis; and the iconic Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library which, it could be argued, is as much an art museum as it is a traditional, historic New England public library.

However, by the late 1890s, Miss Florence was alone and solely responsible for the family homestead. Both the town and the family’s financial situation fell into near ruin. To sur- vive, Miss Florence turned to what was for its time a very acceptable profession for a woman from such a refined upbringing: The family home became a boarding house, taking in artists primarily traveling to and from Boston and New York (as well as the likes of Woodrow Wilson and family).

One such boarder was a gentleman and the Tonalist Henry Ward Ranger. Passing through between New York and Boston in 1899, he stopped at the Lyme train station and took a room at the boarding house. Situated directly on the Lieutenant River, Ward Ranger is said to have stated that the setting reminded him of the South of France. He soon passed word on to to several of his fellow artist friends, who at the time were beginning to experiment with impressionist themes to their work. Willard Metcalf, Matilda Browne, William Chadwick, all took refuge here and could instantly see why the landscape was so appealing to their friend Ward Ranger.

“Many artists talk about that certain ‘Slant of Light’ (a quote from the novel of the same name by Laura Whitcomb)” says Tammi Flynn, the museum’s Director of Marketing. “This setting has that. We view Henry Ward Ranger as a fellow ‘founder’ of the museum.” It had that ‘slant’ then and it has it now. On a recent visit of my own, I was in back of the museum itself looking out at the Lieutenant River at dusk and was absolutely awestruck by the beauty. If you told me I-95 was 300 yards away, I would have told you you’d taken leave of your senses. The setting is stunning and the draw of anyone with a desire to paint is instantly obvious.

It was around this setting that grew a true Barbizon-oriented artists’ colony. “Artists of those times sought out places that could provide a combination of things,” says Flynn, “that we’re central to the creative process: “Quality of environment and setting, a communal living scenario, and low-cost housing. Here, all three were in abundance.” In fact, by 1903 it was the largest and best-known Impressionist Art Colony in America, allowing The Florence Griswold Museum and Old Lyme to lay claim to being one of a few geographic locales that began the North American Impressionist movement.

Miss Florence’s gestures were as grand as the house itself. At one point, without the ability to pay his room dues, Willard Metcalf offered Griswold a painting in lieu of his rent. She refused, saying it was his best work to date. The painting is “May Night,” unquestionably his most celebrated work, and launched Metcalf’s now famed career.

Her kindness also knew no bounds. She made all guests and artists feel as if they were in their own homes. She became the artists’ friend, confidant and critic. She had a disposition people still speak of today. Even in the face of the most difficult financial hardships, her outlook remained ever positive. She was a leader and champion in the Old Lyme Art Community.

The year before her death in 1937 at age 86, her executor told her she must sell the now famed house and, with it, all the priceless art contained within. When word of this spread among the local townspeople and artists, a collection of sorts was taken up to preserve the home. In short order, however, word of the home’s availability spread North and a prominent New York judge by the name of John Marsh expressed immediate interest.

The judge’s deep pockets were no match for the local townspeople, still reeling during the depression, in what essentially became a bidding war.

However, to the delight of locals, Judge Marsh left the Florence Griswold home completely untouched. In winning the bid, he allowed for Miss Florence to maintain the use of the house for the balance of her lifetime. He erected a home of his own just yards away with fine views of the Lieutenant River. In 1947, the Griswold homestead, art and all, became an open-to-the-public museum. Additionally, a more contemporary fine arts museum sits in back of the home. During the high summer months, the “Flo Gris Café” serves local farm to table fare and offers some of the most tranquil and serene views on the East Coast.

“I feel so lucky to be able to work here,” Flynn tells me. “When I make my way from the museums back to my office (now contained within the former Judge’s home and referred to as Marsh House) I always get stopped or stop others and ask them if they are enjoying themselves. It’s always positive…. And SO many people STILL come here to paint…and the art THEY’RE creating will live on as long as the art that’s currently here. It’s truly a special place.”

The Florence Griswold Museum is located at 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, 860.434.5542, flogris.org.

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