Enduring impressions

Students paint en plein air. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.
Students paint en plein air. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.

In August of 1902, a handful of artists summering in Lyme staged the nation’s first summer art colony exhibition in what is now the reading room of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library. Among those represented in the two-day show were Henry Ward Ranger, Clark Voorhees, Frank DuMond, William Henry Howe, and others from the popular “Tonalist” school of painting, sometimes derisively known as the “brown gravy” school because of the dark browns and deep greens the artists used to convey a moody atmosphere on canvas.

The artists cleverly printed train schedules on the bottom of the flyers – a gambit that attracted buyers from New London, New Haven, Boston, New York and even as far away as Chicago. Subsequent shows continued to draw buyers and art enthusiasts from across the country. But just as quickly, the budding art colony drew criticism.

“[I]t may be interesting to consider the present state of this little artistic colony, and the chances for its survival,” sniped the New Jersey-based cultural journal Papyrus in its review of the 1903 exhibition, penned by art critic Percival Pollard, whose name alone practically said it all. The experiment of artists living together, and organizing, in southeastern Connecticut was “all right for a year or two” Pollard opined, but in terms of local subject matter “the best of the honey has been sipped,” he concluded.

Considering Lyme’s subsequent and sustained reputation as a leading center of American art, and American Impressionism in particular, Pollard’s hammering review not only missed the head of the nail, but landed squarely on his thumb. He also failed to predict the cohesive strength of the organization that ultimately emerged from those early art shows and inspired the building of nation’s first gallery to be self-financed by art colony members: the Lyme Art Association (LAA), founded in 1914.

“Our mission is to display and support representational art from current [association member] artists in this historic building,” said LAA business manager, Laurie Pavlos, with unapologetic pride and belief in that enduring credo.

These founding principles grew out of debates and discussions hashed out a little over a century ago in the front parlor and around the dinner table of Florence Griswold’s mansion/boarding house just next door, now part of The Florence Griswold Museum campus.

“Miss Florence,” as she was affectionately known, began taking in seasonal, artist boarders in the late 1800s, at around the age of 50, to help keep the lights on in her gracious, albeit dilapidated, Late Georgian ship-captain’s home.

By 1914, Lyme and the Griswold mansion had become a mecca for dozens of prominent American artists. They spent many summer, fall and spring months on the property where they converted old out-buildings into studios, when they weren’t off painting ‘en plein air’ (outdoors), in the popular, French Impressionist manner.

“The most famous American painters of the time were all here, and Old Lyme itself was the most famous center of American Impressionism,” said Old Lyme artist and unofficial LAA historian/archivist, Jack Montmeat.

The region was ideal for artists in search of inspiration. To the south, hazy summer light hung low over the marshy estuaries of the Lieutenant, Duck and Black Hall rivers and Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Connecticut. Inland, stately old houses, white clapboard churches, and venerable elms lined the dirt thoroughfares of Colonial-era towns and villages, like veterans at a Fourth of July parade. Old farms and granite outcroppings studded the surrounding hill country: a patchwork quilt of rambling stone walls, meadows, and forests of sturdy, somber oak. The “singular mixture of the wild and the tame” and the “variety of the landscape would drive an artist to distraction” reported Harper’s Magazine in 1876.

Henry Ward Ranger was among the first to be so distracted, arriving in Lyme, and at Griswold’s doorstep, from New York in the summer of 1899. Liking what his artist’s eye saw, he returned the following year along with many of his Tonalist disciples: Lewis Cohen, Henry Rankin Poore, Frank Bicknell, William Robinson, and Carleton Wiggins among others.

Yet the art world being famously fickle, within a year of Ranger’s residency, Tonalism was out, and Impressionism was in, thanks to the appearance in Lyme of its American pied piper, Childe Hassam.

Some of Lyme’s resident Tonalists adopted Hassam’s influential style. After Hassam moved on a year later, other new arrivals, such as Willard Metcalf — active in Lyme from 1905 to 1907 – helped solidify the colony’s reputation as the center of American Impressionism. Still others, such as Allen Butler Talcott (early 1900s) experimented with merging elements of both genres. (Ranger, meanwhile, wanting nothing to do with the newfangled movement, packed his brushes, and moved up the coast to Noank in 1904.)

‘A beautiful place to show’

What Hassam and his followers all shared was a desire to depict the earthiness of rural (and in some cases urban) America in the airy and elusive, light-infused French Impressionist style of the day.

“The Connecticut Impressionists were trying to represent what was uniquely American and for a lot of them, that meant New England,” said art historian Jeffrey Andersen, director of the Florence Griswold Museum. The region’s distinctive architecture was a popular subject (the façades of the Griswold mansion and Old Lyme’s First Congregational Church, in particular) as were its rugged farms and even livestock. Wiggins favored sheep, Howe painted cattle, while Poore found inspiration in draft animals. Reporting in 1907, the Hartford Daily Courant quipped that “Lyme cows are so busy posing for the Art classes that they have hardly time to be milked.”

While the annual art shows continued to gain popularity among the public as well as gallery owners and collectors in Boston and New York, the library’s cramped interior was best suited to the quiet contemplation of books, not paintings. Thus, in 1913, the art colony members began discussing plans for opening a gallery of their own. Finally, on June 26, 1914, a handful of artists and local citizens gathered at the Griswold mansion to formally establish the Lyme Art Association. As stated in its articles of incorporation, the organization’s purpose was (and remains) to “own and maintain an Art Gallery; To hold Art Exhibitions [and] To advance the cause of Art” in Old Lyme.

The next step was finding a location and, once more, Miss Florence came to the rescue. The story goes that she sold the budding association a small plot of land next to her home for $1, though Andersen said she in fact let it go for $1,000.

Building the gallery was a bit more complicated. The artists were determined to generate the funds for the project themselves with proceeds from art sales. They got off to good start, and by the fall of 1914 successfully raised the projected $14,000 construction costs. But an economic depression and the entry of the United States into World War I stalled the effort until 1920, by which time the project’s cost soared to $40,000. Meanwhile, artists being artists, everyone had an opinion on the form and function of the proposed structure, including the press.

If “the Old Lyme group feels that it must have a new Lyme Gallery,” sighed the New York Times on August 29, 1915, “it should see to it that the building erected be in the proper Colonial style.”

New York architect Charles Platt, designer of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, as well as New London’s Lyman Allyn Museum, rose to the occasion. Platt’s blueprints, which he donated gratis, retained the symmetry and cruciform, neo-classical layout and proportions for which his institutional designs were famous. Yet he blended the structure into the environment by cladding the exterior in classic, New England cedar shingles.

“The original design, now a little bit hidden behind additions to the sides and rear over the years, was beautifully calibrated and charming for its rural location, yet it provided a dignified and elegant home for the painters’ works,” said architect Chad Floyd of Centerbrook Architects, whose firm has been engaged by LAA concerning the repair, rehabilitation and restoration of the Plat-designed gallery, starting with structural repairs and replacing century-old shingles.

Even the Times was pleased, praising the gallery in a review of its opening in 1921 “as an embodiment of art in harmony with its natural surroundings.”

But the most important element of the design, from the artists’ perspective, was the natural light drenching the interior via specially crafted skylights in the roof.

“It’s beautiful because of the enormity of the space, the high ceilings, the unbroken wall space with no windows, and the natural light coming down through the skylights. It’s just a beautiful place to show,” said Chester artist and LAA member Leif Nilsson.

‘A major outpost of American art’

Miss Florence served as gallery manager until her death in 1937, by which time the LAA, and Lyme, were firmly established in the minds of the press and public as the “Barbizon” of America, a reference to the famed, late 19th-century, French art movement.

Yet firm establishment in the art world is sometimes problematic. Even as Lyme’s star rose as the nation’s center of American Impressionist art, Impressionism itself was in the process of being eclipsed by a new movement, the “Ashcan” school. Its followers turned their backs on the countryside and focused instead on the gritty realism of the nation’s post-war, downtrodden, immigrant-packed urban settings, such as New York’s Tin Pan Alley.

“Art movements tend to wax and wane and certainly by the 1930s and 1940s, Lyme’s colony was seen as old-fashioned and conservative,” said Andersen.

Yet by sticking to its founding principles, the LAA weathered the art world’s vicissitudes with all the fortitude of its hallmark cedar shingles. And its leadership pushed back just as hard against the notion that the organization had outlived its relevance.

“The Lyme Art Association founded by those early Lyme artists is still alive and well,” wrote then-president Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, in a spunky letter to the editor of The [Lyme] Gazette, dated December 16, 1976. It was Chandler who that same year opened an art studio in the gallery’s basement, where classes are still offered, and who went on to found the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts. While many LAA members were local artists, Chandler noted that the organization received inquiries from artists as far away as California, who wished to come and study in Lyme in the tradition of Hassam and his ilk. She also didn’t shrink from observing that the organization’s annual exhibitions attracted “3000 people from around the world” and sold more art work than “any other area art association exhibition.”

It was during these years, said Andersen, that the LAA and American Impressionism made a strong and enduring comeback.

“A lot of these paintings that continued to exist in museums collections were rediscovered and admired and that admiration still holds today. And so you could characterize Old Lyme as one of the major outposts of American art,” he said.

Today, the LAA continues to support its members through diverse, ongoing exhibitions, in addition to offering art classes to the public in its specially-designed basement studio space. But among the most rewarding benefits of membership, say LAA artists, is the unbroken connection they feel with those early artists like Ranger and Hassam whose arrival in Lyme more than a century ago signaled a significant shift in the history of American art.

“I was just inspired by their whole story, and it was that history that drew me to the association,” said Ledyard artist, and former LAA president, Joann Ballinger.

“It sets a high standard to keep yourself to and achieve,” she said.

The Lyme Art Assocation is located at 90 Lyme St, Old Lyme. Admission is free with contributions appreciated. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on exhibitions, purchase of art, art classes, or becoming a member, visit lymeartassociation.org or call 860-434-7802.

The Lyme Art Association gallery during its opening exhibition in 1921. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.
The Lyme Art Association gallery during its opening exhibition in 1921. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.
An artists club meets outdoors at the Lyme Art Association. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.
An artists club meets outdoors at the Lyme Art Association. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.
Tea is served. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.
Tea is served. Photo courtesy of the Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.
The Lyme Art Association today. Photo courtesy of the association.
The Lyme Art Association today. Photo courtesy of the association.
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