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Florence Griswold (1850-1937)

“Miss Florence” Griswold and the Lyme Art Colony
In her delicate and high-bred way, Miss Florence had her part in fostering an authentic American art.
The New York Times

Thanks in large measure to “Miss Florence” Griswold, what is known today as the Florence Griswold Museum has, for more than a century, been the home of the Lyme Art colony, America’s center of Impressionism.

Who was this remarkable woman?  The daughter of a wealthy ship’s captain, Miss Florence was born on December 25, 1850 and raised in one of the finest homes on the main street of Old Lyme, a thriving town at the mouth of the Connecticut River.  Their late Georgian-style mansion was built in 1817 by Hartford architect/builder Samuel Belcher, on a fifteen-acre estate.  Robert Harper Griswold married Helen Powers of Guildford, Connecticut in November of 1840.  They purchased the house in 1841.

Captain Robert sailed for the Black X line of packet boats, carrying passengers and freight between New York and London.  As steam-powered vessels gradually replaced sail, the family’s fortune failed.  Captain Robert retired from the sea in 1855.  He began investing in local businesses and mortgaging the property.  A son, Robert Harper, Jr. died in 1864 at age 17.  In 1878, Helen Powers Griswold and her three daughter, Louis, Helen Adele and Florence, turned their home into a girl‘s school and eventually a boardinghouse.

Captain Robert H. Griswold died in 1882.  Louis Griswold died in 1896 after suffering a fall from her carriage.  By 1899, Helen Adele Griswold was living in a sanitarium in Hartford.  Mrs. Helen P. Griswold died in 1899, leaving Florence alone in the house.  She continued to take in boarders, and sold flowers and vegetables from her garden for income.

In 1899, an artist came calling.  Henry Ward Ranger, having recently returned from Europe, saw in Old Lyme the perfect setting for establishing a new American school of landscape painting.  He found in Miss Florence’s home and her hospitality the perfect place to settle.  Other artist followed suit and the Lyme Art Colony was born.  With the arrival of Childe Hassam in 1903, some of the country’s most accomplished artists gathered in her home.  Over the next decade, it became the center of America’s most famous Impressionist art colony.

Embodying generosity and optimism, Miss Florence stimulated a remarkable congeniality among a generation of America’s finest painters.  By the time of her death in 1937, this uncommon woman had established a colony that changed the identity of a small coastal village, and helped write a vital chapter in the history of American art. 

Prior to her death, in an effort to pay off her debt, the Griswold house and property was sold.  It was bought by Judge Robert McCurdy Marsh from New York.  He allowed Miss Florence lifetime tenancy of the house while he began construction of a new house further back on the estate near the Lieutenant River. 

Florence Griswold died on December 6, 1937 and on July 28th, 1938 an auction of her personal belongings was held.  All of her household items, furniture and personal papers were sold.  Over the past several years, the Florence Griswold Museum has been able to locate and acquire, through donation and purchase, some of the objects that were sold at the auction.

After completing construction of his new house, Judge Marsh sold the Griswold house and 3/4 of an acre to the Florence Griswold Association for a public museum.  The Florence Griswold Museum opened in 1947 and has remained in operation ever since.  It merged with the Lyme Historical Society in the 1950s, and recently purchased Judge marsh’s house and 5 acres of the original estate.

The Florence Griswold Museum brings alive the work of the American Impressionists in the very place where they lived and painted.  A visit to this national Historic Landmark offers a renowned collection of American art including over 400 paintings and 2,000 drawings and watercolors by approximately 135 artists associated with the Lyme Art Colony.  Nothing so completely expresses the spirit of the colony as the forty-one panels painted directly on the walls and doors of the house, especially in the famed dining room.  Period rooms recreate aspects of the region’s history and galleries offer changing art exhibitions. 

The Museum’s grounds invite exploration.  Visitors may stroll on eleven acres of scenic beauty bounded by the picturesque Lieutenant River and walk through the “old-fashioned” historic gardens of Florence Griswold.  On the edge of a meadow, the restored studio of the American Impressionist William Chadwick appears as if the artist has just stepped away.  The lush surroundings continue to attract artists today, both professional and amateur, who discover for themselves the quality of lights and the spirit of place found there.

Education is at the center of the Museum’s mission and a wide range of public and school programs originate from the barn-like Hartman Education Center (built on the site of one of Florence Griswold’s original horse barns).  Programs allow children, adults and entire families to discover anew the artist in themselves by creating a painting in the very spot where artists have painted masterpieces.  Visitors find what speaks to them, be it art, architecture, history or nature.  Programs are based upon the philosophy of making the Museum’s resources accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.

  The Florence Griswold Museum recently acquired an extensive collection of American art as a gift of The Hartford Stem Boiler Inspection and Insurance company (HSB).  The collection, numbering 190 works, will be featured in the new 9,200 square foot riverfront gallery being built on the Museum’s grounds in Old Lyme.  Opening in June 2002, a selection from the collection will be presented as the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, The American Artist in Connecticut.

Considered one of the premier collections in New England, the HSB collection focuses on the works of American artists who lived and worked in Connecticut from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.  In includes examples by many leading artists, such as Ralph Earl, Frederic Church, John Frederick Kensett and John Henry Twachtman. 

Special Projects:  A team of experts in the fields of history, architecture, and archaeology are presently working on an historic structures report funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation.  As part of this research, museum registrar, Laurie Bradt, has completed two archaeological investigations of the property and is now working on a biography of Florence Griswold and her family.  The Museum welcomes information from anyone who may have known Miss Florence or who may have memorabilia relating to her of her family. 

Facts: The  Florence Griswold Museum is a National Historic Landmark located in the heart of the historic district of Old Lyme, Connecticut.  Museum hours and April—Dec, Tues-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5; Jan—Mar, Wed-Sun 1-5.  Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students.  Visitors under 12 are free.

Visit their website at: or call the Museum (860) 434-5542, ext. 110. 



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Last update: January 26, 2011

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