Matilda Browne won so much respect from her fellow artists they let her paint on a door in Miss Florence Griswold’s house in Old Lyme, Conn.
The Old Lyme Art Colony, the most famous collection of artists in its day, mostly included men. Raucous Bohemians, they did not think much of women artists.
Matilda Browne was an exception — the only woman allowed to paint on one of the celebrated panels inside Miss Florence’s Georgian mansion. She was also the only woman portrayed in a mural painted by Henry Rankin Poore on the overmantle in the house. Called The Fox Chase, it caricatured 23 of the Old Lyme artists chasing after a fox. Poore depicted Matilda Browne with her arms raised in shock at the sight of Childe Hassam painting shirtless en plein air.
A Good Neighbor
Matilda Browne was born May 8, 1869 in Newark, N.J. Her family lived next door to Thomas Moran, an acclaimed Hudson River School painter. Moran let nine-year-old Matilda visit him while he worked in his studio. Soon he let her experiment with his paint and canvas.
She impressed Moran with her talent and he encouraged her to take art lessons. At 12, National Academy of Design in New York accepted one of her flower paintings for an exhibition.
She loved to paint flowers and animals, especially ox-teams, horses, dairy cows and sheep. Her mother took her to Europe in 1889 to study with French and Dutch artists who specialized in painting animals. Her mother also bought calves from the local agricultural fair for Matilda to paint. When she finished the painting, she traded the calf for another.
In New York she studied with Carleton Wiggins. He not only painted livestock, but probably introduced her to the high-thinking, low-living summer art colony in Old Lyme, Conn. The Old Lyme art colony played an important role in incubating American Impressionism.
Matilda arrived in 1905, and the male artists immediately accepted her. But they disdained the young female art students they called ‘blots on the landscape.’ One of the Old Lyme artists, Willard Metcalf, painted an image of one of his young women students and called it Poor Little Bloticelli.
By the time Matilda Browne reached Old Lyme, she was the artistic equal of the men who boarded there over the summer. She had won a number of awards and, as one critic wrote, ‘she often wields her brush with almost masculine vigor.’ She was also stout, serious and a little lame, which probably inspired the men to treat her like a sister.
Her subject for the door panels? A pair of calves grazing peaceably.
Matilda Browne returned to Old Lyme periodically between 1911 and 1924. She also painted in Greenwich, Conn., at the Cos Cob Art Colony, and in New York City. Around 1918 she married writer Frederick van Wyck. She died in Greenwich on Nov. 3, 1947.
This story was updated in 2022.