Writer Pete Hamill in his book, “Downtown,” says of New York City, “The present becomes the past more rapidly than any other world city.” Hamill talks about the “velocity” of change in New York. There is so much ambition on so many levels, it is inevitable that change will happen very quickly. So the term “velocity” is a perfect adjective. People of all stripes thrive in this great city of quick change; they grow and expand. Recently I learned about a group of artists from New York, who sought a place to paint in a place with less “velocity.”
New York is a crucible of sorts for the artistic people who live there. Painter Henry Ward Ranger, a New York bohemian who, in contrast to the French Impressionists, painted in the Tonalist (limited color) tradition. He wanted to create an Art Colony similar to many such colonies in Europe and to get away from the “velocity” of the Big Apple, and ratchet things back a touch. After scouting around for a place for said colony and finding a good spot to paint pictures, Ward got a bunch of his art friends to hop on a train in New York, and head to Old Saybrook. Next, the artists would take the ferry Colonial across the Connecticut River to Old Lyme, and then they got a buggy ride to Florence Griswold’s boarding house on Lyme Street. It was here in 1899, another crucible was created with less speed.
Florence Griswold’s father was a packet ship captain. He bought the house, which was considered a mansion with its Greek columns. After the death of her parents, and one of her siblings, Florence and her remaining sister Adele opened the home as a boarding house to generate money; the place was mortgaged heavily. The fortuitous meeting with Henry Ranger served her, the family’s property, and the cadre of artists who would stay there and paint for years to come. Here, in this idyllic setting on a small tidal river away from the city, the like-minded Bohemians could paint myriad natural subjects: flowers, trees and oxen at their own pace.
At Miss Florence’s boarding house, the artists and their spouses could stay in a room or other out-buildings for seven dollars per week. Single men could stay in attic rooms. Single women had to stay in town. The Tonalists, who painted en plein air (in the open air) usually worked at dawn or early dusk, so they had some slack time to mess around in boats on the river, or play horseshoes. Lunch was announced by “Whistling Mary,” who blew a two-foot tin horn. Meals were a break from the monastic act of painting. In the evening, the guest artists could play cards or sing songs around the piano. Miss Florence was a great host.
An interesting tradition was born at Florence Griswold’s house. The artists created paintings on the doors of the house. When they ran out of doors to paint, they painted on the walls of the living room. The bar was set very high by artists of this colony in Old Lyme, and you had arrived if you were asked to contribute a painting on a door.
Matilda Browne was the only female to be allowed to do a door painting (yeah, I know, this was kind of a guy only deal) but the times were changing. In 1903, noted Boston painter Frederick Childe Hassam, an Impressionist, came in conflict with Henry Ward Ranger over the emerging American Impressionist School. Ranger left the Old Lyme Colony and moved to Noank to paint. Impressionism is the Yang to Tonalism’s Yin.
The next time you get off the ferry in Point Judith, to head points south and back into the “velocity” of your own life, I have a simple suggestion for you. Jump off I95 at exit 70, and roll into Miss Florence’s driveway. Then, do a tour of the main house. Finally, grab a copy of “Miss Florence and the Artists of Old Lyme.”.
Not only is this a good story, but it has great illustrations by Block Island’s own, James Stevenson!