A July Afternoon, Old Lyme

One hot morning last week I was looking at some paintings by the American Impressionist artist Matilda Browne (1869-1947) when I realized I wanted to see more. It was apparent that the best place to do that was the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, so I hopped in the car and drove down there, arriving in the early afternoon. I was supposed to be doing lots of other things but I ran (drove) away instead: I’m a firm believer in doing that from time to time and have always been grateful that I have the ways and means to do so. Old Lyme is a beautiful town: I’ve been there quite a few times but never to the Griswold Museum, and it was a real feast for the senses, especially at this time of the year, when the Colonial Revival garden in back of Miss Griswold’s mansion was at midsummer peak. There is the 1817 mansion, embellished with the art of Miss Griswold’s artist-boarders who established the Old Lyme Art Colony at the beginning of the twentieth century, the garden and grounds with trails along the Lieutenant River, the modern gallery with cafe and gift shop, and several studio-outbuildings which give the impression of an artistic community past and present. It was a perfect place to spend an afternoon in July, as everything was bathed in that golden midsummer glow, much like the painting by once-resident Edward Simmons of the same title. And I saw lots of Matilda Brown’s paintings too.

Edward Simmons’ July Afternoon, Old Lyme (1906) and the house, garden and grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Florence Griswold’s life (1850-1937) was in some ways common, in other ways not. She was born into a wealthy family, exemplified by the grand 1817 mansion on Old Lyme’s main street, whose money was increasingly diminished to just the house and grounds with no means to keep both. After the death of her father in the 1870s, the house was transformed into a school for genteel ladies, and after the death of her mother in the 1890s, into a boarding house by Florence and her sister. The artist Henry Ward Ranger came to stay in 1899, and convinced other artists to follow suit in the years to come, and the house evolved into an artistic community with Miss Griswold very much in its center and her house the foundation of an emerging art colony in Old Lyme. Apparently extending patronage (in the form of credit) to artists became a higher priority than holding on to the family home, and she lost it before her death in 1937, but over the next decade the Florence Griswold Association was able to purchase it and establish the museum. The first floor of the house is maintained much as it was in her time, while the second floor has galleries devoted to the work produced there, including paintings of the house itself, illustrating her role as “the keeper of the artists.” Resident artists, including Matilda Browne, also painted the house itself, most prominently its door and mantle panels, leaving their mark in more ways than one. While the Old Lyme Art Colony is associated most prominent with American Impressionism because of the residency of Childe Hassam and others, you can also see works representative of the less well-known (at least to me!) school of Tonalism associated with Ranger. And there are also some very impressive cows.

ABOVE: Matilda Brown, Miss Florence’s; Charles P. Gruppe, The Griswold House at Old Lyme; Woodhull Adams, Miss Florence’s Parlor (1912); painted panels in the Griswold dining room. BELOW: Front hall and parlor of the Griswold House, Miss Griswold’s bedroom and a guest bedroom.

It was quite a shift to move from the mellow tones and painterly animals ensconced in the old Griswold House to the museum’s modern galleries, which are currently showcasing a retrospective of artist Dana Sherwood’s more whimsical work, including an installed Bedroom Bestiary (2021) below. Very charming images, but I wanted to stay in the past, as usual, and in the garden, which was lush, lush, lush. So back to Miss Griswold’s environment I went: to the realm of her boarders and borders. It was Matilda Browne who lured me to coastal Connecticut after all.

Works by Dana Sherwood in the 2002 Krieble Gallery; Matilda Browne’s Clark Voorhees House (1905) and Saltbox by Moonlight; William Henry Howe’s Repose, September Days in Normandy (1888-89); back in the garden—somehow I never thought of using sage as a border plant like this.

5 responses to “A July Afternoon, Old Lyme

  • daseger

    Duly noted. I agree, it’s kind of lazy, but it’s difficult to convey the diminishing wealth scenario that so often happened in certain New England towns like Old Lyme and Salem. Regarding the latter, I always try to catch myself when I write “the son/daughter of a Salem sea captain” but it’s so often true!

  • Elaine Smollin

    Hi Donna
    I enjoy all your posts and insights.
    As an artist and writer on art and society, I’m eager to see the day when two phrases expire from use:
    “Born into wealthy family”
    “Genteel Ladies”
    Both, I feel, (unintentionally) deprive individuals of the past of their individuality and fall short of the revealing complexities that comprise every person, era and economy.
    I’m looking forward to your next posts.
    Thank you for all these interesting views into Salem and other societies.
    Elaine Smollin
    Painter, Writer on Art + Society

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for sharing your lovely summer jaunt to Old Lyme to view the paintings of Matilda Browne at the Florence Griswold Museum. Those were great pics of the house and gardens. Interesting how Florence was such a positive influence on aspiring artists in her time.

    Obviously, the art museum DNA is strong in the Griswold family. Florence’s childhood summer home built by her father (John N. A. Grisworld) is now the Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Avenue, Newport. A National Historic Landmark in the “American Stick Style,” it was designed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1864.

    I wandered in there recently when we were staying at the Viking Hotel up the street. The woodworking throughout the house is striking. I would considerate it an example of “the old rich” of which Edith Wharton’s family was a part, rather than the more garish “new rich” mansions of a few decades later in Newport.

    Looking forward to your next summer excursion…

  • Nancy

    Beautiful thread, Donna! Matilda Browne’s “Saltbox by Moonlight,” though, is my very favorite!

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