The tools of art at the Florence Griswold Museum
An art museum usually showcases, of course, the finished product.
The latest Florence Griswold Museum exhibition is going behind the completed work to see the creative tools used in making the art - easels and palettes, paint boxes and art supplies that Lyme Art Colony painters and others used to create their pieces.
"The Artist's Easel" pulls a series of items from the museum's collection of historic artist materials, and it pairs many of them with works by the painters who used them.
So, sitting on Ivan Olinsky's easel is his "Red-Headed Woman," an oil on canvas done circa 1927. Next to William Chadwick's studio easel is his "Irises," an oil on canvas.
The exhibition - curated by Amy Kurtz Lansing - puts into context the easel's place in the art world. The show introduces the notion of easels as "workhorses of the studio whose very name is thought to have come from the 16th-century Dutch word for donkey ('ezel'), animals known for carrying loads. Despite their indispensable status, easels have received little attention - silent servants, fulfilling a supporting role. Indeed, little is known about their makers, and few, if any, are labeled or marked."
One of the more mammoth easels in the exhibition was one used by Thomas Cole, who is considered the founder of the Hudson River School and helped popularize landscape painting in the U.S. in the early part of the 1800s. The easel - as well as his palettes and hinged mahogany sketchbox - are on loan from the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N.Y.
Kurtz Lansing says the Cole easel is important because it "represents the kind of easels artists used for centuries, going back to the emergence of easel painting, say, in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. It really stands for a kind of easel artists could have made themselves - a very simple design. It also gives a sense of how large the artists were sometimes working, especially in those early years. They were working on these massive paintings."
When art became a profession of note in the late 1800s, it prompted the commercial production of specialized equipment. With that came easels that could be adjusted - cranked up and down, tilted forward.
And some easels could be folded and carried, which was particularly helpful for en plein air artists. They could now easily bring easels into nature to paint landscapes on site, as opposed to using sketchboxes that restricted the scale of their work.
"Once you had the collapsible easel, it meant you could work on a slightly larger canvas outdoors," Kurtz Lansing says. "So it opened up more possibilities for artists."
One of the Flo Gris's most recent acquisitions is the easel of artist Frank Vincent DuMond, who painted landscapes, portraits and murals. The easel - which was given to the museum last year - features a pivoting support for paintings, as well as an adjustable drafting table and storage drawers.
"Until 2013, his easel resided in the artist's home on Grassy Hill Road (in Lyme), where it was used by subsequent generations of artists including Harold Goodwin, Barbara E. Goodwin and Michael Harvey," the exhibition's wall text explains.
In addition to DuMond's easel, the exhibition showcases a few DuMond works - a modestly scaled landscape titled "Grassy Hill" and two "Westward March of Civilization" studies for murals that Dumond created for the 1915 Arch of the Setting Sun at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
"The large scale of these prepatory studies helps to give us a sense of how DuMond used his easel, which stands nearby," the exhibition states. "Its surfaces would have provided areas for drawing as well as painting these gridded studies."
Part of the exhibition spotlights the ways that easels sometimes made their way into actual artworks. In Robert Vonnoh's 1907 painting of his wife, sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh, she may be in the forefront, but he can be slightly seen behind a canvas on an easel in the background. The duo shared a studio and apartment in New York, in a West 67th Street cooperative building where other Lyme artists also lived.
"Some artists, in their self-portraits ... include the easel because they want to show themselves at work, and the easel is really a symbol of that," Kurtz Lansing says.
In Oscar Fehrer's 1918 "Reflecting and Reflections," his easel can be seen in the mirror behind the model. Ben Colman, assistant curator at the Florence Griswold Museum, says, "We don't see the artist himself, but we know he's there. We see the back of his easel, and all of a sudden, this humble piece of furniture starts to stand in for a much larger idea. It tells us about the way the artist is looking and the artist is reflecting upon a scene as he creates the image that we see."
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On view at the Flo Gris at the same time as "The Artist's Easel" is "Lyme Artists Abroad," which deals with what Lyme artists saw and learned when they travelled.
"They bring back these very diverse influences and unexpected experiences, and they all play such a role in shaping works that are very identifiably and iconically Connecticut," says Colman, who curated "Lyme Artists Abroad."
The pieces - all drawn from the museum's permanent collection - feature painted locales ranging from Harry Leslie Hoffman's "February, Nassau, Bahamas" to Edmund Graeacen's "The Seine at Vernon."
Henry Ward Ranger's "Dutch Harbor," circa 1890, is accompanied by a description of his path to and from Holland. Ranger travelled to Europe to study painting, after seeing some of the French Realists' creations. He ended up spending time in an art colony in Laren, outside of Amsterdam.
"The colony was then a center of the so-called Hague School of modern Dutch painters, whose work helped inspire Ranger's signature tonal style of landscape painting. When Ranger returned from Europe, his Dutch paintings like this one ('Dutch Harbor') helped to bolster his reputation as a leading American landscape painter," the exhibition states.
F. Luis Mora, on the other hand, spent time during his childhood in Uruguay, Barcelona and New Jersey, before his family settled outside of Boston. He later returned to Spain on his travels and was inspired by the Spanish Old Master paintings he saw.
Mora's untitled painting shown in the exhibition - created circa 1910 and a recent gift to the Flo Gris collection - depicts a casual luncheon on the grass. He painted in various places that year, and the resulting works share a very similar style.
Colman says, "What's so fascinating and, to my mind, endlessly curious about that painting is there's no way of knowing if it was made in Old Lyme, which it may have been, or if it was made in New York City, which it also may have been, or if it was made in Spain."
Colman says Mora was a very formal painter before he came to Old Lyme.
"When he gets here, the casual atmosphere and the casual style of his peers starts to permeate these works," Colman says. "So he keeps bits and pieces from his earlier style - strong interest in dramatic contrast and bold form and color and rich textures - but then uses it to execute scenes like this painting that show the pleasures and joys of rural life."
A new view
As part of "The Artist's Easel," the Florence Griswold Museum is showing for the first time a recent acquisition - Matilda Browne's "Peonies." The oil painting on panel, created around 1907, focuses on a woman in the garden of Katharine Ludington, whose property was located near Florence Griswold's boardinghouse in Old Lyme.
Ben Colman, the museum's assistant curator, says, "That's such an exciting new addition for us. It's such a beautiful painting that was made just a few hundred yards down the road by one of our most beloved artists. It's a painting that, as best we can tell, has never before received a public exhibition since it was made."
The same Vermont family had owned the painting since they bought it from the artist's gallery around 1910.
"So this is its public debut in many senses of the word," Colman says.
IF YOU GO
What: Exhibitions "The Artist's Easel" and "Lyme Artists Abroad"
Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme
When: "The Artist's Easel" through March 16; "Lyme Artists Abroad" through June 1
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.
Admission: $10, $9 seniors, $8 students, free to children 12 and under
Contact: (860) 434-5542, FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org
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