New York may be the hub of American style, but it’s not the only cultural hotspot in the area. Head northeast along the coast, and in an hour or so you’ll find yourself in Connecticut. Famed for its sophisticated, yet suburban residents, the small state has many personalities. Even in the small, coastal towns that line the eastern seaboard, communities are a mix of rural sophistication.
Old Lyme is one of these places. Its breathtaking landscapes lured artists of the American Impressionist movement in the late 1800s. Artists studied at home and abroad, focusing on light, and landscapes. But, different than their French predecessors, American Impressionists’ work was more structured and realistic, often painting outdoors to capture subjects and atmosphere. They flocked to rural areas close to urban centres, to enjoy the best of both worlds – inspiration for their art, yet access to patrons, and salons. Old Lyme, on the Lieutenant River, halfway between New York and Boston, provided the perfect backdrop.
Florence Griswold was the daughter of a once prosperous sea captain. At the age of 50, Florence was single, and had survived her entire family. She inherited the house, the grounds, and the debts. Florence turned the family home into a boarding house to pay the bills, and soon attracted the forefathers of the American Impressionist movement. The house became a destination for creative painters who could toil away their hours in front of the river. They paid a modest sum, and also earned their keep painting panels all over the house – on doors and above fireplaces. They painted 38 panels in the dining room, alone.
The house is preserved, and filled with nearly 200 pictures given to the museum by the Hartford Steam Boiler and Inspection Company. But there’s a catch – the museum can never loan or sell any of them. So, if you make the trip, rest assured, these are something special. The collection represents the important contribution of American art during the 19th-20th centuries.
This is a museum with just as much to offer outside, as in. The grounds are luscious. A modern gallery houses rotating exhibits, and guests are encouraged to lounge by the riverside on Adirondack chairs. If you visit on a Sunday, you’ll be given canvas and paints. Sculptures fill part of the garden, along with a vegetable patch which supplies the Flo Cafe, housed in a lovely barn, with local produce. The crab cakes and fresh salads were hard to pass up. You can also picnic, there’s plenty of room on the lawn.
About 15 minutes’ drive from Old Lyme, is New London, where the Lyman Allyn Art Museum makes a good pairing. The Neo-Classical building houses a permanent collection of more than 10,000 pictures, sculptures, furniture and decorative arts. Most of the works are American art from the 18th-20th centuries. When I visited, a temporary exhibit called, “Face-Off” filled the upstairs with the work of legendary modern photographers like Annie Liebovitz and William Wegman, save for a small corner devoted to maritime art.
These two stops on the Connecticut Art Trail are a great break from shell-collecting, or for riding out a storm.