Florence Griswold suffered reversals of fortune that, in the end, transformed her beautiful old Georgian home into the Old Lyme Art Colony, the most famous collection of artists in its day. In the process, she gave Old Lyme, Conn., a new identity and shaped the careers of a generation of artists.
Florence Griswold was born Dec. 25, 1850 in Old Lyme, Conn., the youngest of four children. Her family was descended from early settlers of the town, and her father was a prosperous sea captain. In 1841 he bought a Georgian mansion on a 12-acre estate for his new bride. Two decades later, the arrival of the Civil War and steam-powered vessels forced him into early retirement. Bad investments cost him his fortune. Old Lyme, once a prosperous shipbuilding town, fell on hard times as well.
To make ends meet, Florence’s mother and two sisters in 1878 turned the rambling house into a school for girls. Florence and her sister Adele were left in a financial bind when their father, mother and sister died. In 1892 they started to take in boarders, an acceptable way for women to make money and a fortunate choice for Florence and the American art world.
In 1899, artist Henry Ward Ranger came to Old Lyme, having just returned from the European art scene. He saw in the pretty coastal town an American version of France’s Barbizon, which spawned its own school of art. Ranger rented a room from Miss Florence and encouraged his friends to come to Old Lyme. The next year, his friends Lewis Cohen, Henry Rankin Poore, Louis Paul Dessar, and William Henry Howe joined him. Two hundreds more artists would pass through the colony over the next three decades, creating a school of art known as American Impressionism.
Florence Griswold called herself ‘the keeper of the art colony.” The artists called her Miss Florence. She charged $7 a week for a room, which included meals, a daily pitcher of water and a kerosene lamp to find one’s way to one’s rooms (or around the rooms) at night. She made sure the artists returned year after year by writing them during the winter.
Miss Florence also took a strong interest in the artists’ work and forever tried to sell their paintings. She turned the front hall into a gallery, where she sold the artists’ framed paintings and old furniture. In August 1902, 12 of the artists put on an exhibition in the Old Lyme Public Library. The Hartford Courant reported the library was ‘thronged’ by visitors from Hartford, New Haven, Middletown, New York, New London, Boston, Chicago, Springfield and elsewhere.
The success of the exhibit may have attracted Childe Hassam the next year. Hassam was a prolific and influential artist, then in his 40s, and he had a lot of friends. As the popularity of the summer exhibitions grew, some of the country’s best artists began making the pilgrimage to Old Lyme. Barns and sheds were turned into studios. The artists painted the First Congregational Church, the bridge nearby and old fruit orchards. Mountain laurel, which grew especially well in Old Lyme, was a favorite subject for many of the artists. One artists stuck cotton balls to laurel shrubs so he could paint them after their blossoms faded.
Miss Florence created a warm, cheerful atmosphere. She also provided a respectable veneer for the bohemian habits of the artists. Childe Hassam, in a July 3, 1905 letter, called the Griswold house ‘just the place for high thinking and low living.’ Archaeologists later discovered a stash of beer, wine and liquor bottles in the crawl space under Hassam’s studio.
Caroline Weir Ely, daughter of artist J. Alden Weir, was quite familiar with the Old Lyme Art Colony. “Miss Florence was the life of the house,” she wrote, “happy go lucky, always ready to get up a picnic, arbitrator of quarrels, and the first to lead the way to the abundant larder, which, night after night, was raided of its new cakes and pies.”
Miss Florence died in 1937. Her legacy lives on in the renowned Florence Griswold Museum, the ‘Home of American Impressionism.’