A Connecticut Art Museum's Landscape Restoration Turns Historic Paintings into Reality
On a blue-sky day as perfect as one could get in the nerve-rattling October of 2020, artists Chris and Paul Beebe, dressed in matching, paint-stained aprons and masks, stood by a cutleaf beech tree the size of a double-car garage. In the breeze beside the Lieutenant River in Old Lyme, Connecticut, the couple raked paintbrushes across square canvasses.
The beech was not the only shadow the Beebes occupied that day. At the turn of the 20th century, a cultivated, colorful character named Florence Griswold established a daring colony of artists who pioneered Impressionist painting in America. The Lyme Art Colony, the biggest of its era, included Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Matilda Browne, and a host of others who made pilgrimages to Griswold’s house between 1899 and the 1930s. These artists came to her rolling riverside acres to paint outdoors and were moved to new creative heights by the grounds’ maple trees, peonies, fruit orchards, and mountain laurels. The site is now the Florence Griswold Museum, a member of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, a program of the National Trust.
“The view in every spot is an artist’s dream. You have all the great textures of the area, and the colors are fabulous,” said Chris Beebe, who, along with her husband and two sons, has long visited from her hometown of Bloomfield, Connecticut.
In recent years, the museum has restored native and traditional plants and managed the reassembled 11.8-acre landscape for biological diversity and ecological resilience. Griswold’s gardens have been replanted; her fruit trees, too. Workers have removed invasive weeds, and outfitted old oaks, maples, and beeches with homes for birds and bats. A new rain garden attracts pollinators and filters water pouring into the Lieutenant.
The effect is not only biological, but also historical and artistic. The scenes art lovers like the Beebes can see again match those that lit the imaginations of the original art colonists. Rebekah Beaulieu, director of the museum, called it “reactivating the grounds.”
“We wanted to highlight the natural elements that inspired the artists,” she said, speaking through a sparkling ruby mask, as we walked on a new footpath that wound through spruce trees and orange milkweed populated by plump yellow bumblebees.
Landscape architect Lauren Stimson felt excitement blossom inside her when she visited the Florence Griswold Museum in 2015. A principal at the landscape architecture firm STIMSON, she had studied the grounds more than a decade earlier while researching the cultural landscape of the Connecticut River watershed. Now she was leading the museum’s restoration project, and her goal was to “put the landscape back together.”
It was a vision three-quarters of a century in the making. During the Great Depression, Florence Griswold, in her mid-80s, was forced to sell the remainder of her property to pay off debts. (The new owner let her live in the three-story, late Georgian–style house until her death in 1937.) In 1941 the Florence Griswold Association bought back the house and its 0.6-acre site, opening a museum a few years later. Eventually the association and the Lyme Historical Society merged, marrying the former’s mission of sharing art with the latter’s of preserving the past.
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In 1978 the museum established its first endowment, and the pace of re-acquiring neighboring propertyaccelerated. During the early 2000s it opened the 10,000-square-foot Robert and Nancy Krieble Gallery, resembling Modernist barns, to showcase paintings and sculpture in rooms illuminated by natural light. Next it transformed a historic barn into the John and Dyanne Rafal Landscape Center. And it opened Café Flo in the Krieble Gallery, giving visitors an option for dining on the grounds. In 2016 the site purchased the seventh and final parcel of land—the meadow along its southwestern corner—in its mission to rebuild what Griswold had lost.
The only part not keeping pace with the property’s bold restoration and redevelopment was the flora and fauna. Over the years the grounds had become far less ecologically diverse. More than half of the land was clipped green lawn staked with stately, solemn trees. It looked so much like a college campus that Stimson called it a “mow and blow” landscape: lawnmowers all summer, leaf blowers all fall. Invasive weeds, such as batteries of phragmites colonizing the riverbank and tangles of Japanese knotweed stalking the perimeter, further leached the land of the richness, texture, and diversity that attracted artists a hundred years earlier.
Though the whir of Interstate 95 to the south can obscure it, the museum is located in one of North America’s most dynamic ecoregions. It lies along the Atlantic Flyway, a 3,000-mile-long bird migration route that stretches from Baffin Island to the Bahamas. As the presence of heritage trees—birches, tupelos, maples, oaks, and beeches—attests, it is part of a North Atlantic Coastal Plain Hardwood Forest habitat. Nearby, the Lieutenant and Connecticut rivers converge and form a haven for striped bass, white perch, and shad, which are hunted by diving double-crested cormorants, hooded mergansers, and osprey.
To clean rain runoff pouring into the rivers, Lauren Stimson hoped to replant native vegetation, which often has deeper root systems that act as better filters than short-rooted invasives. The native flora had also co-evolved with native fauna. She wanted to re-establish those symbiotic relationships, which would have benefits beyond the borders of the museum.
“From the beginning we said this place has to be a model for sustainability,” she said.
The seed of Stimson’s mission was planted in 1996, when the museum acquired land that once held Griswold’s beloved gardens, inherited from her mother, Helen Powers Griswold. Jeffrey Andersen, director of the museum from 1976 through 2018, hired an archaeologist to scour the grounds. The project turned up thousands of art colony artifacts, from shards of pigment to tubes of paint to the location of Childe Hassam’s studio. It also uncovered the outlines of Griswold’s garden plots for her flowers and vegetables. The site began rebuilding and replanting them in 1999 as a prelude to the total landscape restoration.
Seated on a wooden bench beside the garden, Andersen said staff, contractors, and hundreds of volunteers have “applied to landscape the same eye that a painting conservator would.” He and Stimson had an amazing resource for determining what to plant and where: paintings.
In 1841 the patriarch of the Griswold family, sea captain Robert Harper Griswold, bought the estate before his fortunes dwindled. The youngest of his four children, Florence—a single woman who treasured her independence—inherited it. To make ends meet, she rented out rooms for $7 per week. In 1899 artist Henry Ward Ranger traveled from his New York City studio for a summer at Griswold’s boardinghouse and proclaimed, “This land is only waiting to be painted.” The Lyme Art Colony was born.
Ranger had a vision of duplicating on his own country’s shores the art colonies of France, where American expats had flocked to live communally and feed off each other’s creativity. Though Ranger was a Tonalist whose landscape paintings emphasized earthy shades of brown, charcoal, and gray, the painters who answered his call worked in a new style: Impressionism. With bright colors and bold brushstrokes, the Impressionists conveyed the excitement of the eye’s first glimpse of outdoor scenes—shimmers of leaves, waves of grass, glowing sunlight.
In 1900, artists Lewis Cohen, Henry Rankin Poore, Louis Paul Dessar, and William Henry Howe came to Griswold’s estate. They called her “Miss Florence,” which the museum’s roughly two dozen employees still call her to this day. In 1903 Childe Hassam, who would become the most well-known member of the art colony, pronounced his studio on the property to be “just the place for high thinking and low living.”The artists painted en plein air by day, and in the evenings they retreated to the house for group dinners and parties that ended with Griswold leading sing-alongs on the piano. They collaborated on painting playful wall panels in the dining room. Often they rowed the Lieutenant River in a trio of leaky boats.
Griswold courted journalists and raved about her artists. She considered herself their “keeper.” At the end of each summer, the painters put on exhibitions in Old Lyme and sold their works. In 1906, Willard Metcalf tried to give her his painting May Night, which depicts a woman (likely Griswold) in front of the house, lit by the moon. She refused, telling him, “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” The work became the first contemporary painting purchased by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (It now belongs to the National Gallery of Art.)
Though the Impressionists forged a new style, their sentiments were rooted in the past—or, more accurately, a version of the past. The 20th century’s dawn showed dramatic changes in America. Between 1910 and 1920, for the first time, the majority of people lived in cities, and automobiles and immigration proliferated. Many Americans were unsettled by this growth and industrialization, and their unease manifested itself in Colonial Revival–style architecture, populist politics, and a back-to-the-land movement. Griswold attended the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and glimpsed two technologies that would transform America: the telephone and the typewriter. Upon returning home she recommitted herself to tending her garden. Her estate, she said, was a respite where “everything savors of the past.”
The Impressionists who visited her were attracted to the pastoralism around her estate: dogwood trees, gardens, stone walls, and the Bow Bridge over the Lieutenant River. Yet what they viewed as a remnant pre-industrial haven was actually a landscape in flux. Before European colonization, the land was dominated by vast forests of giant American chestnuts, oaks, and elms, and inhabited by the Pequot people. During the Pequot War of the 1630s, English colonists and their Narragansett, Mohegan, and Wangunk allies killed at least 1,000 Pequot tribe members. The colonists placed hundreds more into slavery or servitude.
Over the following decades, European settlers cleared the forests in valleys to plant crops and on hillsides to graze sheep and cows. In the 18th century the agricultural economy gave way to an industrial economy: Lyme shipyards launched 200 vessels between 1784 and the mid-1800s. Come the 20th century, the old farmlands began to fill with young forests, and later with estates and cottages of well-to-do city residents seeking fresh air.
One of Stimson’s revelations while studying the Griswold Museum was seeing how the Impressionists were attracted to “edge” landscapes. Painter Benjamin Eggleston had said that the “separations between fields, forests, watercourses, and roads,” were where Lyme held “much of its beauty.” It was as if the edges—where a cleared pasture meets a forest, where shrubbery meets a grassy path, and where stone walls delineate farmland from pasturage—gave off energy.
“There was that tension between the cultivated and the wild,” Stimson said. “They recognized it.”
Stimson pinpointed four edge landscapes within the boundaries of the Griswold Museum: a hedgerow of tall trees and shrubs; a wooded ravine; an emergent wetland; and the tract of meadow on the property’s southwestern quadrant. She poured her ideas, combined with those of her associates and the museum staff—plus input from conservation organizations such as the Connecticut Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy—into a detailed master plan illustrating her vision for the landscape. Every rendering included, for reference, an Impressionist painting. The plan won an honor award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2019. It also won a $1 million grant from the Robert F. Schumann Foundation; the foundation’s namesake was a longtime museum board member and an avid birder and environmentalist.
With the grant, Stimson’s firm built much of the half-mile-long Robert F. Schumann Artists’ Trail, opened in the summer of 2019. It includes four distinct paths: a River Walk, a Hedgerow Walk, a Woodland Walk, and a Garden Walk. Separately and together, they wind through ecologically revitalized landscapes. At different times of year and on different paths, visitors will see chickadees swooping around giant hyssop, peonies and tomatoes coloring up in Griswold’s garden, and replanted ferns sprouting beneath Norway spruces. In the future, the trail will extend southward into the meadow—filled with warm-season grasses—and circle the property.
Building what effectively is a public park—a native plant haven, wildlife reserve, and walking circuit—had an unexpected benefit at the outset of COVID-19. The museum itself, which annually draws around 80,000 people, shut down for months, and reopened in July of 2020 at reduced capacity. But the grounds have stayed open and free to the public, giving the community a safe space to escape lockdown, stay socially distant, and enjoy good news reports from woodpeckers, bluebirds, and warblers.
Ecologist Judy Preston of Connecticut Sea Grant, a program dedicated to creating healthy marine ecosystems in the area, said it is difficult to hold a landscape in a specific historical era. But she added that, by trying, the Griswold Museum is priming the site for a healthier continuing evolution.
“I applaud the museum for using the roots of the Impressionist painting school to look at the influence of the environment on that school,” she said. “They have really made a commitment.”
Gail Welch, of Mystic, Connecticut, walked the boardwalk above the rain garden in October of 2020 and paused to touch and smell some of the newly planted shrubbery. She said the museum had “really brought the place back to life.”
By giving it a truer natural impression.
Editor's Note: Throughout the month of May the Florence Griswold Museum, in partnership with the Historic Artists' Homes and Studios program, will be hosting a three-part lecture series "Home Improvement: Reframing the Stories Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios Can Tell." These talks will focus on the future of historic house and studio interpretation.
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