Impressions of Old Lyme's cosmopolitan artist

"Dejeuner en Provence," ca. 1910, oil on canvas by Lucien Abrams
"Dejeuner en Provence," ca. 1910, oil on canvas by Lucien Abrams

Lucien Abrams painted subjects as diverse as an Arabian girl in Algeria, the Brazos River in Texas, a ferry at Marseilles, and "Opening Tea" at the Lyme Art Association. You can see those and dozens more examples of his work - with accompanying archival material - on view now at the Florence Griswold Museum. The exhibition, "Lucien Abrams: A Cosmopolitan in Connecticut," runs through June 1.

Abrams (1870-1941) was inspired by the landscape of Texas where he was born and raised; his world travels; and his years living in Old Lyme where he was a major figure in the Lyme Art Colony. Organized by the Old Jail Art Center in Albany, Texas, guest curator Michael R. Grauer drew upon both public and private family collections to look closely at the artist's contribution to Texas Impressionism and the global Impressionist movement.

"(Grauer) contacted us because he knew Abrams had been a member of the Lyme Art Colony and we put our own spin on it," says Amy Kurtz Lansing, Florence Griswold Museum curator. "We didn't just want to tell the Texas side of the tale, but (also) his world travels and especially his time in Connecticut."

Abrams studied at Princeton University in New Jersey, the Art Students League of New York, and the Academie Julian in Paris.

"His teacher at the Art Students League in New York was Frank Vincent DuMond, one of the Lyme Art Colony members," says Kurtz Lansing. "We don't know for sure how he got to the Lyme Art Colony but think it was through this connection to DuMond."

Kurtz Lansing points out that Abrams's family played a big part in Texas history.

"His father was a land agent for the railroad. They had significant land holdings," she says. "I mention this because I think that background made it possible for Abrams to travel as extensively as he did and live in all of these places."

While he lived in Paris - in the 1890s through the early 1900s - Abrams was painting many full-scale portraits, which are represented in the show.

"In 1905 he got his passport and went on a trip to Algeria, where lots of French artists went," says Kurtz Lansing. "The French artists were interested in these kind of Orientalist scenes that were looking at the harem, depicting the women as flirtatious figures. Abrams took more of the approach of a reporter. He spent a lot of time going out in the streets, sketching in pencil, oil on wood, oil on canvas, the street life he saw there and all the different types of people."

In 1914, Abrams began dividing his time between his family home in Dallas, a winter home in San Antonio, and a summer home in Old Lyme, where he lived until he died.

"He was always out in classical Impressionist mode of observing what's going on, the popular life all around him, people in the ports, the parks, on the ferries - the kinds of subjects of everyday modern life that appealed to the Impressionists," Kurtz Lansing says. "His family even lent us one of his suitcases and his easel (for the show)."

Kurtz Lansing says she wonders what would have happened if Abrams stayed in Europe.

"World War I broke out in August 1914 and he was basically on the boat back to America in the first days of September," she notes. "He was very engaged with the avant-garde art happening in France in the first decade of the 20th century. Over a short span of time, he totally transformed his use of color. A picture done in 1909 still has a traditional feel and color palette that's really pegged to how these colors are used in nature, and then four year later, his color is much more dramatic and bright and not necessarily bound by what he exactly sees with his eyes. To me, this is a very exciting part of his work."

These works suggest how much Abrams revered the paintings of both Renoir and Matisse, according to Kurtz Lansing.

"He was really interested in color and so he started using tempera paint quite a bit so he could paint more thinly and have these colors that have a kind of freshness and luminosity to them the way tempera paint does. This is something he brought back to America," she explains.

On the boat back to American, Abrams met the woman he was going to marry and quickly traveled to Old Lyme.

"He knew he wanted to settle down here because it was an art colony and the kind he knew from Europe, and he wanted to be in that kind of community," Kurtz Lansing says.

"The first picture he painted in Old Lyme was of the Bradbury's Mill, a subject really beloved by Lyme Colony Artists," she says. "He also painted laurel blooming on the Lieutenant River, and the woman he married (depicted in) 'Woman in Blue.' I think this is a picture he felt very proud of. He and his wife had a daughter and settled into a house on Johnny Cake Hill Road, and that house and garden became a kind of aesthetic project for him as well. Like the Impressionists, he often gathered his subjects from the things that were closest around him."

Abrams became very involved in the Lyme Art Association and regularly exhibited his work there, such as the painting "Opening Tea, Lyme Art Association."

"He would also include things he'd done in France and that was well received by people who liked to see through his works how all these trends in modern art were developing," she says.

"One of the things we added from our collection was this painting he did in 1816 of the orchard behind Florence Griswold's house. You can see all these focused touches and the way he's using red to outline trees and play off against the blue and the bark - that he's aware of how these colors create this really vibrant effect."

Kurtz Lansing says that she thinks Abrams represented what one reporter in the 1930s called "the sane moderns."

"He was this kind of conduit for these modern trends from Europe, but he wasn't a cubist," she says. "So they appreciated what in his work was modern but still tied enough to the traditions of the past that it also had a kind of popular appeal."

"Mission de la Concepcion," San Antonio, Texas, 1928, oil on canvas board by Lucien Abrams

IF YOU GO

What: “Lucien Abrams: A Cosmopolitan in Connecticut”

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Through June 1

Info: www FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org or (860) 434-5542, ext. 111

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