In the late 19th century, artist Martha Lamb observed that the variety of landscapes in the town of Old Lyme "would drive an artist to distraction."

Her comment was prophetic. Within a few decades after she made that statement, Old Lyme was home to a bustling artist colony. The Lyme Art Colony, which thrived from 1899 to 1937, lured painters from all over the country to take in the lovely scenery, tote their easels out every day and paint en plein air.

Today, the Florence Griswold Museum sits on the Old Lyme property that was the heart of the colony.

Old Lyme attracted artists for the same reason Lamb praised the landscapes. "The founder of the colony said it reminded him of the Dutch lowlands and the coastal area of Holland, with the estuaries," said Jeff Andersen, director of the museum and a scholar of American impressionism and its colonies. "Then upland, there are forested areas that became subjects for the painters."

The colony was founded in Florence Griswold's boarding house by Henry Ward Ranger and other artists in the tonalist movement. In 1903, Chlide Hassam moved in and brought impressionism with him. That movement dominated forever after. Today, the FloGris, as the museum is affectionately called, is known as the Home of American Impressionism

But not as the Birthplace of American Impressionism. That claim is laid, rightly, by the Cos Cob Art Colony in Greenwich. It came into existence in 1889, when John Henry Twachtman bought a house there and began luring other artists to take up residence in the nearby building now known as the Bush-Holley House. The Colony was active until about 1920.

Andersen said the Lyme and the Cos Cob colonies had interesting differences that go beyond Lyme being more populous and lasting longer.

"There were some parallels and shared affinities. Some of the same artists went to both colonies, like Hassam. [Cos Cob] tends to be a little more experimental, more embracing of modernism, and also a little bit broader, in that there were writers there, too, like Willa Cather," Andersen said. "[Lyme] is a little more traditional, a little more looking at the American village and what Henry Ward Ranger called 'the humanized landscape.'

"Also, the group that came to Old Lyme began early on to have exhibitions, much earlier than Cos Cob ... and I think that helped to kind of codify a philosophy," he said. "And quite early on, artists began to settle here and they became permanent residents. They became real stakeholders in preserving the look, the image, the style."

Smaller colonies existed in Farmington, Kent, Hartford and Mystic-Noank. Weir Farm in Branchville (the Ridgefield-Wilton line) was the home of artist J. Alden Weir and is now a national park. That locale also was a center of impressionist artistry. However, Andersen hesitated to call it a colony. "That is an incredible place and certainly an art center," he said. "But that was a private home. He invited artists. It was an atmosphere more of friends than of a boarding house kind of situation." Weir also painted at a second home in Windham.

Their Purpose

The concept of art colonies came from 19th century France, when artists demoralized by the Industrial Revolution fled to the country.

"They sought out places that reinforced their belief that French society was really an agrarian society and they needed to connect to the workers, to the people who work in the field, and to show that there is a nobility about that," Andersen said, adding that the art colony trend spread to Holland, England and Scandinavia. The most famous French colony was Barbizon, which Ranger frequented.

Other factors, besides natural beauty, contribute to a town being chosen by artists for colonization. "These places are usually forgotten byways that are inexpensive places to stay," he said. Old Lyme's location, halfway between New York and Boston, helped, too, he said, giving artists easy access to city galleries and the schools where they taught.

In Old Lyme, that inexpensive lodging was provided, most famously, by Florence Griswold.

"When [Ranger] knocked on her door, [in 1899] she was 49. She had just lost her mother. She was living in the house with one sister and had no real means to provide the ongoing upkeep," Andersen said. "It was a beautiful riverfront property just eking out an existence by opening up for summer visitors."

Griswold accepted Ranger's offer to fill the boarding house with artists. "She embraced this as a wonderful thing, economically meaningful to her, and emotionally, she was ready for a new chapter in her life. After that, they came back every year and it began to grow and build."

Tonalism, with its Old Masterish palette, and impressionism, which tends to favor bright daylight and sunny colors, are different styles. The friendly rivalry between the tonalists and the impressionists was a part of living at the colony.

"Hassam and his group called the tonalists the "baked apple school" or the "brown gravy" school of art, because everything was kind of brown," Andersen said. "The teasing went both ways."

Another feature of living at "Miss Florence's" house was painting on the walls and on the door panels. The dining room of the house is spectacular, with more than a dozen in-situ paintings by leading lights of the colony including Hassam, Walter Griffin, Henry Rankin Poore, Carleton Wiggins, Lewis Cohen, Frank Bicknell, Everett Warner and Jules Turcas. A long, thin mural over the fireplace depicts the colony's most entrenched and well-known artists.

Griswold housed hundreds of artists in her time, and sometimes their families, too. These included future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, whose first wife, Ellen, was an impressionist painter.

Even though the colony grew beyond Griswold's house, after her death in 1937 the Lyme Colony faded away. Her house was turned into a museum in 1947.

Andersen said that artists chose Old Lyme and Greenwich because those towns were "resonant of our identity of Americans."

"The cities were changing overnight, with industrialization, immigration and expansion. Artists in the colonies wanted to go back to the roots of the country," Andersen said. "It was an odd combination. Impressionist colonies were on the edge between traditionalism and progressive. They were progressive in terms of the art technique and they were traditional and anti-modern in terms of the subject matter."