American Impressionists in Old Lyme, Connecticut

Willard Metcalf's "May Night"

What art lover can get enough of the impressionists? Not Emsworth, certainly, despite his vow to partake of more solid fare, and so last weekend found us in Old Lyme, Connecticut treating ourselves to a second generous helping of American impressionists this summer. (The first was here in Rochester, with pictures from the Phillips Collection. See my earlier post.)

Old Lyme is home to the Florence Griswold Museum, the only museum I know of devoted solely to American impressionism. For a decade or two, beginning around 1900, a number of painters, including Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf, came each summer to stay at Florence Griswold’s boarding house and to paint in the congenial and picturesque surroundings of Old Lyme. Metcalf depicted its classy facade in one of his best-known paintings, May Night, seen above. (The place is not nearly as mansion-like as Metcalf’s picture suggests!)

The boarding house is no longer the home of an art colony, but instead a small, unpretentious museum. The gardens have been nicely restored, a new gallery building (sadly devoid of architectural interest) was erected several years ago, and a good (though narrowly focused) art collection has been assembled.

Theodore Robinson's "The Wedding March"

The show that now fills the new gallery spaces (through July 27, 2008) consists of American impressionist paintings from the Terra Foundation. These were painted by Americans working from about 1885 and into the 1920s in Giverny, of all places, the French town where Claude Monet lived and tended his celebrated garden with its Japanese footbridge and lily pond.

These young Americans must have been quite a nuisance to Monet and his family. One of them, Theodore Butler, succeeded in marrying Monet’s step-daughter, Suzanne Hoschede, an event memorialized in Theodore Robinson’s painting The Wedding March, which is part of this show. Several of Butler’s own paintings, which did not especially appeal to us, were also on display. Willard Metcalf, who collected birds’ eggs (shown as part of this exhibit!), managed to get himself hired by Monet to teach botany to his son and stepson.

Still another American, John Leslie Breck, apparently tried and failed to marry another stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschede. Breck surely did his best to curry favor with the girl’s stepfather; he joined Monet in painting those tiresome haystacks. (The Breck picture shown to the left is titled Morning Fog and Sun.) One wall of the galleries was wasted on a dozen small haystack studies by Breck.

Breck's "Autumn, Giverny (The New Moon)"

But we did enjoy a large and impressive pastoral landscape by Breck entitled Autumn, Giverny (The New Moon), which shows the influence of Barbizon painters Jean-Francois Millet and Jules Breton — although everyone in our party agreed that Breck had devoted too much of the canvas to the foreground.

Ernest Lawson's "Harlem Valley, Winter"

The show in Old Lyme has a satisfying set of works by Theodore Robinson, some of which brought to mind paintings by Ernest Lawson we had recently seen in the exhibit from the Phillips Collection in Rochester. (For Emsworth’s reflections on that exhibit, see this post.) For example, Lawson had a habit of putting bare tree limbs in the foreground of a landscape (see above) as a sort of screen for the rest of the painting. Robinson’s earlier painting, Winter Landscape, done in 1889, used the same device.

Lawson’s work is characterized overall by the use of thickly applied, jewel-tone paints. But Theodore Robinson apparently used this technique first, as evidenced by my favorite of the Robinson pictures in this show, Pere Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge.

Theodore Robinson's "Pere Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge"

The highlight of the show for me was a wall of several paintings by my favorite American impressionist, the bold colorist Carl Frieseke, who produced his best work in the second and third decades of the twentieth century while Matisse and Picasso were taking modern art in quite different directions. In Frieseke’s Lady in a Garden, the stripes on the lady’s dress become indistinguishable from the reeds through in which she is standing; she becomes one with cultivated nature.

Carl Frieseke's "Lady in a Garden"

From Rochester, the Florence Griswold Museum is not exactly a day trip, but it’s easy to find once you’re in New England anyway. Old Lyme is just off Interstate 95, about thirty miles east of New Haven.

For an art museum junkie who cares about American art, and Emsworth stands at the front of that line, the Florence Griswold Museum is worthy of regular visits for its excellent permanent collection. Most of that collection is, unfortunately, in storage when the museum has a traveling exhibition like the present one from the Terra Foundation occupying its new exhibition space.

But highlights of the collection, including this quintessentially impressionistic work by Childe Hassam, can be seen in the first- and second-floor rooms of the old boarding house. A particularly pleasing painting by William Chadwick shows the veranda of the boarding house as it was when Chadwick, Hassam, and the others were working there a hundred years ago. Amusingly, the panels of the kitchen cupboards were all painted by the denizens of the art colony back in the day.
(July 15, 2008)

See Emsworth’s post on another small but fine art museum whose collection focuses on the American Impressionists: The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. It’s at this post.

And check out some of the American impressionists, including Willard Metcalf and Childe Hassam, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. See my recent post.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Here is a fellow WordPress Blogger, Emsworth, with a top ten of American Impressionist painters.  I recognized a few of these names from the exhibit.  Another post by Emsworth discusses the Old Lyme Artist Colony. […]

  2. […] Etats-Unis il participe à Old Lyme à la colonie des impressionnistes américain accueillis par Florence Griswold . Il a en parallèle un atelier à New York. Avec John Singer Sargent et Walter Leighton Clark il […]

  3. […] Etats-Unis il participe à Old Lyme à la colonie des impressionnistes américain accueillis par Florence Griswold . Il a en parallèle un atelier à New York. Avec John Singer Sargent et Walter Leighton Clark il […]

  4. Joe, I’m afraid the name of the artist doesn’t ring a bell. Emsworth

  5. Have you come across any works by B.Major ? an American impressionist circa 1930. I’m researching his biography.


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