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The Past and Present of the Old Lyme Art Colony

With a year-round population of just 7,600 people, Old Lyme, Connecticut, is a small coastal community that offers a quiet way of life. At the same time, the town attracts thousands of seasonal visitors and is known for its thriving art community.

Old Lyme's commitment to the arts goes back over 100 years when a group of artists took up residence at Florence Griswold's boarding house. Griswold came from a wealthy family, but her fortunes changed, forcing her to rent out rooms in her home for $7 per week.

In 1899, an artist named Henry Ward Ranger rented a room from Griswold and soon convinced other emerging artists to do the same, leading to the creation of an artists colony in Old Lyme.

The community's artistic tradition continues to this day, as the town has facilities for artists and art-lovers to explore throughout its historic downtown district.

Photo of kitchen decorated with art in Old Lyme, CT

The History of the Colony

As mentioned above, the Old Lyme art colony started in 1899 when Henry Ward Ranger organized a retreat for artists at the town's Florence Griswold boarding house. The seasonal retreat mimicked the French Barbizon school's environment, providing a scenic location for artists to paint local landscapes realistically.

Over the next 30 years, more than 200 artists spent time in the colony, and it was responsible for much of the development of American Impressionism, as well. Many of the movement's most famous works depict buildings and scenes around Old Lyme, some of which have permanent displays at the Florence Griswold Museum.


What is American Impressionism?

American Impressionism characteristics include plunging perspectives, cropped figures, and a more asymmetrical composition than Renaissance-style paintings. Followers of the movement are also known to have used color straight from the tubes to allow for vibrant tones.

For the most part, American Impressionist paintings are of the landscape or buildings within a town. Many of these scenes depict an upper-class way of life, displaying American wealth to the world.

American Impressionism flourished between the 1890s and the 1910s, with Old Lyme becoming its focal point in the early 1900s because so many well-known artists spent time there.


Who Stayed at Florence Griswold House?

Perhaps the most influential name in the history of Florence Griswold House is Childe Hassam, who produced more than 3,000 paintings over his career and is one of the most prominent American artists of the early 20th century. Hassam first visited Old Lyme in the 1890s, but in 1903, he became a dominant figure, shifting the entire colony from Tonalism to American Impressionism in the process.

Wilson Irvine spent his early life and career in Chicago, but made a name for himself in Old Lyme, starting in 1914. Upon relocating to Old Lyme, Irvine became famous for his American Impressionism work, including "Fall, Eight Mile River" and "Prismatic Winter Landscape".

Willard Metcalf traveled the world as an artist, living in Europe, Africa, and Cuba before returning to the United States. He stayed at the Florence Griswold House numerous times between 1905 and 1907, and the museum houses the most extensive public collection of his work.

Henry Ward Ranger is responsible for founding the Old Lyme art colony, organizing some of the first artists' visits to the Florence Griswold House. Ranger, a Tonalist painter, left the area in 1904 when Childe Hassam and American Impressionism rose to prominence but continued his career in nearby Noank.

Edward Charles Volkert is known for his cattle paintings and initially moved to Old Lyme because of its abundance of oxen. Volkert believed that oxen were more straightforward to paint than cows, and wanted to begin depicting them in his works. After staying with Florence Griswold, Volkert bought a house in Old Lyme where he lived until he died in 1935.

Although historians recognize Henry Ward Ranger as the founder of the Old Lyme art colony, Clark Voorhees, a relatively well-known painter, stayed in the community first and likely introduced Ranger to it. Starting in 1893, Voorhees would travel to Connecticut, staying at Florence Griswold's boarding house and painting the landscape before it was a hub for the art community.


Art in Old Lyme Today

Old Lyme might not be the artistic hotbed that it was in its heyday, but the influence of the art colony remains to this day.

For starters, there's the Florence Griswold Museum, which is in the same building as the original boarding house. The building is a National Historic Landmark and has a renowned collection of American Impressionist paintings.

The Lyme Art Association was founded in 1914 and moved to its current location in 1921. This art gallery hosts exhibitions by members and visiting artists, as it has every year since opening. There are permanent exhibits at the gallery, and you can take painting classes there, as well.

Speaking of classes, Old Lyme is home to the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, a world-class facility in the heart of town that trains students in a variety of artistic disciplines. The school attracts emerging artists from all over the country, continuing the artistic tradition of Old Lyme, Connecticut.


An Art Lover's Dream

If you're an art lover looking to buy a home on the Connecticut Shoreline, Old Lyme has everything you could ever imagine. After all, the town not only has one of the country's most impressive artistic histories but is home to a world-renowned art school, has significant art collections, and hosts countless workshops.

Living near the ocean and surrounded by art is a dream for many people, and that lifestyle is precisely what Old Lyme, Connecticut, provides for its residents.

Published July 13, 2020 in Exploring Our Area