December 25: Florence Griswold and the Lyme Art Colony



A young Florence Griswold. (Florence Griswold Museum)

On this day in 1850, Florence Griswold was born into one of Old Lyme’s most prominent families, the youngest daughter of wealthy ship captain Robert Griswold. Not long after Florence was born, however, the family’s fortunes began to change, The start of the Civil War (with its many naval blockades), combined with the decline of sailing ships in favor of steam-powered vessels forced Captain Griswold into an early retirement. By the 1870s, Florence’s father had died, leaving the family in dire financial straits. To maintain their large mansion in Old Lyme, the family turned it into a boarding school for girls. Nearly two decades later, when Florence was in her 40s and the only remaining family member left at the house, she decided to close the school and make her home a boarding house for adults, marketing it as an idyllic and fashionable summertime escape for city-dwellers.

In 1899, American landscape painter Henry Ward Ranger, recently back in the United States after a lengthy trip to Europe, stayed at Florence Griswold’s house and decided that the stately home. surrounded by sprawling gardens along the shores of Old Lyme’s Lieutenant River, was the perfect setting for an artists’ retreat. The next year, Ranger returned with a number of his friends – all fellow artists –  hoping to recreate the feel of the artistic communities he had encountered in Europe through establishing what came to be known as the Lyme Art Colony. Over the next decade, “Miss Florence’s” home became one of the nuclei of American Impressionist art painting, with famous artists like Childe Hassam, William Henry Howe, William Chadwick, and Matilda Browne producing some of their most iconic works there. Many of their paintings feature Connecticut flora, fauna, and landscapes.

“Miss Florence” was quite proud of her contribution to Old Lyme’s national reputation as an artist-friendly town; shortly before her death in 1937, she declared, “First the artists adopted Lyme, and then Lyme adopted the artists, and now, today, Lyme and art are synonymous.”

In the late 20th century, the Griswold family home underwent an extensive renovation, and is now open to the public as the Florence Griswold Museum, a combination historic house museum and fine art gallery in the heart of Old Lyme. We remember with appreciation one of the state’s greatest patrons of American art, today in Connecticut history.

The Griswold family mansion, now the Florence Griswold Museum.

Further Reading

Florence Griswold,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame

An American Place: The Art Colony at Old Lyme,” Florence Griswold Museum

Our History: Miss Florence,” Florence Griswold Museum