Landscape paintings are put in new context at Florence Griswold Museum exhibition
The latest exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum not only showcases landscape paintings, but it also delves into ecological and historical aspects related to the works. Viewers learn, for instance, that the land in a bathers-relaxing-at-the-beach scene had a tumultuous history; that the gauzy haze depicted in another artwork might be traced to decaying leaves giving off gases or to industrial pollution; and that Katharine Hepburn once made a rather snarky comment about the Connecticut River, a waterway featured in several paintings on view.
“Fresh Fields: American Impressionist Landscapes from the Florence Griswold Museum” pulls together some of the most vital paintings from the museum’s collection, and it puts them into a new context.
“While these Impressionist paintings were created at a certain moment in time, the landscapes they depict can nonetheless teach us about events and attitudes that shaped the views composed by the artists, and reveal changes in the land between the Lyme Art Colony era and today,” the exhibition text states. “… American Impressionism and the study of landscape in art are being re-shaped by urgent concerns about the environment and recognition of the importance of seeking out diverse voices to fully describe the meanings of our Connecticut landscape.”
Outside experts came in to offer insight on ecology and history related to the subjects of these works, including local ecologist Judy Preston, Central Connecticut State University history professor Matthew Warshauer, and scholar and editor Carolyn Wakeman. They wrote the exhibition text for a number of artworks.
Florence Griswold Museum Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing says, “I not only learned from the other guest authors, but even going back to these works that I know really well, and coming up with new questions and new information ... I felt like I learned more about an object.”
One was Matilda Browne’s “Cornfield Point,” a painting done circa 1910 that features one of Browne’s favorite subjects, livestock; cows are just visible in this moody, nighttime piece. Cornfield Point in Old Saybrook was a place where English colonists first grew and milled corn in the 1800s “under armed guard against the indigenous people whose land they occupied,” as Kurtz Lansing’s exhibition text notes. Kurtz Lansing wonders if Browne might have sought patronage from Elizabeth Colt Jarvis (of the Colt munitions family) and George Watson Beach, a wealthy married couple who owned Cornfield Point around that time and who had built a castle-like home there.
Florence Griswold Museum devotees likewise might see paintings they have viewed before, but with the new information in “Fresh Fields,” they are gaining a different perspective.
“We’re encountering that in all different areas (of life now) — rethinking our conventional understandings of American history and so many topics. Even though this is a show we began planning last summer, how it turned out, I think, has been really influenced by that contemporary moment of reflection,” Kurtz Lansing says.
“Fresh Fields” was inspired in part by the museum’s Robert F. Schumann Artists Trail. With the creation of the trail, which was unveiled last year, museum staff members spent a lot of time thinking about the history and environmental aspects of the site beyond its role as inspiration for artists.
“So it was this natural moment last summer to say: how can all of this work be something we use to reflect on our collection in different ways?” Kurtz Lansing says.
And with the 2019 Flo Gris exhibition “Fragile Earth,” she says, “There was a lot of awareness that we developed through that about humans and the environment and the landscape, and so (we decided) to take a lot of those ideas and then bring them back to these familiar objects.”
This also happens to be the museum’s first show since the Flo Gris reopened its doors earlier this month, following the mandated COVID shutdown.
What Katharine Hepburn said
Two recent additions to the collection on view are untitled J. Alden Weir paintings of mills in Connecticut. Ecologist Judy Preston wrote of one of them that it was a “reminder that the revolution that fueled the economy of the northeast was the result of, in large part, access to abundant flowing waters. What began as individual mills where streams and small rivers powered water wheels, graduated into the industrial landscapes that grew around rivers that could provide significant power but also a readily available conduit for manufacturing waste disposal.”
Preston referred to a quote attributed to actress Katharine Hepburn, who had a home in Old Saybrook; in 1965, Hepburn called the Connecticut River “the world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool.”
Ecology and history are also explored in the text accompanying Childe Hassam’s “Apple Trees in Bloom, Old Lyme.” It explains that the artist so admired the apple blossoms on Florence Griswold’s property that he scheduled his visits for the same time that the first buds were expected each spring. “While Hassam was not alone among Impressionists glorifying apple blossoms as the essence of ‘old’ New England, the fruit was not native but rather transplanted from Eurasia and cultivated by settler colonists as a staple food. … Despite (the Griswold orchard’s) rustic appearance on Hassam’s canvas, Florence embraced agricultural management and offered the orchard as a site for spraying and pruning demonstrations by state officials,” according to the exhibition.
William Chadwick’s “Bathers at Griswold Beach,” circa 1915, and Will Howe Foote’s “Nude Overlooking White’s Point from Millstone,” circa 1920, portray visions of relaxation at the shore, but the accompanying text provides a view into the complicated history of the areas.
For the Millstone piece, the text notes how, “Before the arrival of the Europeans, that shoreline served as seasonal home to the Nehantic … In 1651 John Winthrop, Jr., received hundreds of acres of their land at Millstone Point from authorities of Massachusetts Bay Colony. ‘Millstone,’ identified in the painting’s title, reflects the use to which settler colonists put the local rocks, quarrying them to make implements to grind grain into flour.” Of course, now a nuclear power plant exists on the site.
“Looking at those beach scenes in particular, which I had really thought about in these leisure terms — people escaping from life in the city — I felt I understood their larger and more multi-dimensional history better through this project,” Kurtz Lansing says.
The Flo Gris has been collaborating with Native American tribes, including Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center officials, “to develop conversation and understanding about the land where the Museum stands … We will continue our dialogue and reach out to additional groups with the hope of forming a lasting relationship around our mutual respect for the land and for one another,” according to the exhibition. “... Their research and contributions reveal fresh fields for study, with an interest in inclusiveness.”
If you go
What: “Fresh Fields: American Impressionist Landscapes from the Florence Griswold Museum”
Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme
When: Now through Nov. 1: hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sun.
Admission: Must be done online at least 24 hours in advance, via timed ticketing; a limited number of tickets will be sold per time slot.
Cost: $10 adults, $9 seniors, $8 students, free to ages 12 and under
For more info: (860) 434-5542, www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org
Visiting a museum now
What's it like to be inside a museum during the coronavirus pandemic?
If my visit to the Florence Griswold Museum is any indication, it's not terribly different from what it was like in the past — except, of course, now everyone wears masks, keeps at least six feet apart, and follows a set traffic pattern.
When I went midday last Sunday, other visitors were gazing at the artwork in the "Fresh Fields" exhibition, but there was plenty of room, and everyone was considerate of each other's space.
The truth is, during normal, non-COVID times, museums are rarely crowded. They tend to have spacious galleries that allow patrons to stand back and appreciate a work of art. Even when I've been to museums in big cities, I haven't felt that I was hemmed in or needed elbow room.
And at a time now when some folks are wary about touching anything, they don't have to worry at a fine art museum, where they are supposed to look, not touch.
Museums just might be the ideal arts venues for the era of social distancing.
— Kristina Dorsey