Tour America's Treasures

An invitation to tour America's historical sites...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Florence Griswold Museum: The Panel Paintings

View Florence Griswold Museum in a larger map

Visit our Tour Destination: Connecticut page to see the entire tour of the state’s Save America’s Treasures sites.

With no other room like it in America, this prized collection of painted doors
and panels quickly became an attraction that lured tourists to the
Griswold House.  "Every stranger within the gates of Lyme wants to see it --
and to see it is to admire it," wrote one observer in 1941.
Photo by Joe Standart, courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

The most elaborate panel is Henry Rankin Poore's The Fox Chase, a long
frieze-like painting above the fireplace that depicts members of the art colony
in a mock fox hunt through the village.  Photo by Joe Standart,
courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Florence Griswold Museum
96 Lyme Street
Old Lyme, CT

The Treasure:  The painted panels and doors at the Florence Griswold Museum chronicle the work of some of America’s finest impressionists working at the height of the Lyme Art Colony. As the Florence Griswold Museum received two Save America’s Treasures grants, this is the second of two entries (the first treated the Griswold House itself as an American treasure).

Accessibility:  The Florence Griswold Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sunday from 1 to 5.

The first door.  Left panel:
"Hound Dog Baying at the
Moon" by Henry Rankin Poore.
Right panel:  "Bow Bridge by
Moonlight" by Henry Ward
Ranger.  Photo courtesy of the
Florence Griswold Museum.
Background:  Henry Ward Ranger started the practice of panel painting at the Griswold House in 1900. During his first summer at the Griswold House, Ranger painted a moody Tonalist landscape within the right side frame of the door to his room. Then he challenged his artist friend Henry Rankin Poore to paint a complementary scene within the left side frame. Poore rose to the challenge, setting an initial very high standard for panel painting at the Griswold House. The practice really took off in 1905 when artist Willard LeRoy Metcalf suggested decorating the dining room with individually painted wooden panels.

Each year, the core artists of the colony issued invitations to selected artists from their group to paint a panel or door at the house. These invitations were considered the highest of compliments and the artists would generally oblige with an inspired contribution (doubtless additionally motivated by competition among the artists to impress the others with the quality of their work).

Henry Ward Ranger and his cluster of friends—the first artists to gather as a fledgling art colony in Old Lyme—were considered Tonalists rather than Impressionists. An art style adopted by important American artists such as George Inness and James McNeill Whistler, Tonalism typically depicted landscapes that were dominated by an overall tone of a dark, neutral color. Their pictures appeared moody and shadowy, sometimes conveying a sense of mystery or spirituality.

Detail of right panel of door painted
by Childe Hassam:  "The Bathers"
(1903), oil on wood door panels.
Image courtesy of the
Florence Griswold Museum.
But the artistic mood at the Griswold House shifted in 1903 with the arrival of Childe Hassam, already established as a leading figure among the American Impressionists. Like the Tonalists, Hassam embraced the local scene—both its landscapes and its architecture. However, unlike the Tonalist works, Hassam’s paintings burst with bright colors and energy. A very strong artist, his celebration of Old Lyme attracted the attention of other talented American Impressionists, some of whom joined Hassam at the emerging art colony. Even the first wave of Tonalist painters fell under the influence of Hassam as they brightened their palettes toward more Impressionist colors.

From 1900 to 1920, the Lyme Art Colony flourished at the Griswold House, with the great majority of the panels dating from this period. Ultimately, more than 30 artists contributed painted panels and doors to the house. Most of the paintings are located in the dining room—where today’s visitors can find themselves completely immersed in the spirit of turn-of-the-century American Impressionism. The Griswold House dining room has been recognized as an American treasure since the early days of the art colony and remains an enchanting celebration of the American landscape, whether shimmering in sunlight or poetically shadowed by moonlight.

"Landscape with Cow" (1907) by Walter Griffin (1861-1935), Childe Hassam
(1859-1935), and Henry Rankin Poore (1859-1940).  Oil on wood panel.
Image courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

"White Cottage in Autumn" by Woodhull Adams (1854-1921).  Oil on
wood panel.  Image courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

"Lyme in Winter" (c. 1914) by Everett Warner (1877-1963).  Oil on
wood panel.  Image courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Notes from the Editor:  Nourished by their experiences at the Griswold House, the artists at the Lyme Art Colony were inspired to do some of their best work. They would set up the easels on the grounds or go out exploring the town and countryside in search of new views to capture on canvas. Florence Griswold, their gracious host, worked with the artists to convert the various outbuildings into small studios, with the favored artists getting their pick of the finest.

"May Night" (1906) by Willard LeRoy Metcalf.
Corcoran Gallery
Source:  Wikimedia Commons 
One of the most famous paintings to emerge from the Lyme Art Colony was Willard Metcalf’s “May Night.” Metcalf arrived at the Florence Griswold House in the summer of 1905. At the age of 46, he was respected as an artist by his peers but was still awaiting breakthrough recognition. During his second season at the Griswold House, he began experimenting with “nocturnes,” atmospheric nighttime scenes. 

Painted in spring 1906, “May Night” depicted two women on the grounds of the Griswold estate at night, with the front porch memorably bathed in moonlight. Metcalf offered Florence Griswold the painting in lieu of rent, but she insisted that the painting was too valuable for her to accept. She reportedly said, “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done. When you show it in New York, they’ll snap it up at once, and everything will be lovely.”

Florence Griswold’s instincts were soon proven right. “May Night” was awarded First Prize and Corcoran Gold Medal at the Corcoran Gallery’s inaugural exhibition of contemporary art in 1907, and it became the Corcoran Gallery’s first-ever purchase of a contemporary American painting. “May Night” continues to be regarded as a masterpiece of American Impressionism, one of the great treasures of the Corcoran Gallery, and an iconic image that magically captures the Griswold House mystique.

Other Recommended Sites:  Paintings by the American Impressionists of the Lyme Art Colony are well represented in museums throughout the country. They are some of the finest examples of American Impressionism, as well as charming evocations of the beauty of rural New England.

As noted above, “May Night” by Willard Metcalf is at the famous Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. While visiting Washington, you can find other major collections of American Impressionism at the Phillips Collection (Washington, DC) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC). In Connecticut, the New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, CT) has a fine selection of works by the American Impressionists.

Since I live in the Philadelphia region, I’ll make a special shout-out for a different art colony—the Pennsylvania impressionists of the New Hope School who were flourishing at the same time as their counterparts in Old Lyme. The James A. Michener Art Museum (Doylestown, PA) has a remarkable collection of works by Pennsylvania Impressionists, including major pieces by Edward Redfield and Daniel Garber.

"Florence Griswold House" (1905) by Will Howe Foote (1874-1965).
Oil on wood panel.  Image courtesy of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Tour America's History Itinerary
Friday’s destination:  Sterling Opera House

© 2012 Lee and Terry Price


  1. Wow, what a treasure! I had never heard of this place--and American Impressionism is a major oversight for me--but this sounds beyond lovely, especially after the restoration. Now I just need to get myself to the East Coast again one of these days!


  2. Yeah, this one blew me away. I have high hopes of visiting later this summer. Childe Hassam is a long-time favorite of mine. Please let me know the next time you visit the East Coast!