Call of the Coast: Exploring art colonies of New England
By Rita Papazian
Posted: Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In the preface to the catalogue for the current exhibit “Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England” at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, artist Jamie Wyeth poses the questions: Do art colonies work? Do they produce inspired work?

Wyeth, a longtime resident of Monhegan Island, the locale of one of the four New England artist enclaves featured in the exhibit, admits he is no fan of art colonies; yet, he lives in the house where Rockwell Kent once lived and surrounds himself with his paintings. In a sense, Wyeth says, “I have tried to assimilate his life,” and such assimilation has become Wyeth’s own personal art colony. He says the artists of these art colonies were on to something, that he is just beginning to recognize.

He invites viewers to draw their own conclusions.

“Call of the Coast” beckons the viewer to see for oneself the inspiration emanating from the paintings that hang on the wall of the Krieble Gallery through Jan. 31.

The exhibition represents the works of artists from four art colonies in Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Conn. and Ogunquit and Monhegan, Maine. The 73 paintings from the collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the Florence Griswold Museum chronicle the development of Impressionist Connecticut and Modernist Maine.

“The artists saw the colonies as a place that exemplified a simpler life,” said Amy Kurtz Lansing of the Florence Griswold Museum who curated the show with Portland Museum curators Thomas Denenberg and Susan Danly. Many of the artists had come from New York City or Boston to enjoy the contrast of the coast and more pastoral landscape from their more gritty urban environments. Some artists even traveled from one artist colony to another as they formed bonds of friendships among the artists and enjoyed the change in environments from Old Lyme’s tidal marshes or Ogunquit’s picturesque fishing village to the remoteness and rugged landscape of Monhegan Island just off the coast of Port Clyde.

The artists stayed in boarding houses, such as the homes of Florence Griswold in Old Lyme or the Holley House in Cos Cob, which attracted Impressionists J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman.

Griswold, the daughter of a sea captain opened her Old Lyme home to artists beginning with Henry Ward Ranger in 1899, who invited his artist friends including Lewis Cohen, Louis Paul Dessar, and Clark Voorhees, among others. Upon seeing Old Lyme for the first time, Ranger described the sleepy town “…like Barbizon, the land of Millet,” for it reminded the artist of the famous French art colony southeast of Paris. Childe Hassam followed in 1903. Lansing describes the Lyme Art Colony as a group of painters with a “dual affection for classic New England architecture and dappled impressionist light effects.” Hassam made Old Lyme the home of American Impressionism.

Among the Old Lyme paintings are three prominent paintings representing the state’s popular flowers; William Metcalf’s “Dogwood Blossoms,” and two paintings each with the title of “Laurel,” the state’s flower, by Edward Rook and also William Chadwick. The Mountain Laurel was designated the state flower of Connecticut in 1907 and blooms each June along the Lieutenant River in Old Lyme.

Curator Lansing says that Chadwick’s work represents the Old Lyme painters’ tendency to “place the coast in the distance or turn their back on it altogether and focus on the architecture of the town and the distinctive rock ledges.”

Ogunquit’s fishing village played host to an ideological contrast between two artistic cultures in the early 20th century; the traditionalists (Bostonians) like Charles H. Woodbury and the avant-garde (New Yorkers) like Hamilton Easter Field.

Edward Hopper’s “Monhegan Houses” is among the paintings on exhibit representing the artists of the Monhegan Island art colony. Hopper was introduced to the island by his artist friend Robert Henri, Lansing said. Other artists in this art colony included Rockwell Kent, Randall Davey, George Bellows and Leon Kroll. Monhegan’s role as an artist colony is the subject of the largest selection of paintings in the exhibition.

In addition to staying for the summer in boarding houses, some of the artists such as Hamilton Easter Field in Ogunquit bought lobster shacks or as Twachtman did in Cos Cob, a farm. Many artists purchased their own houses.

Lansing noted that while the exhibition is titled “Call of the Coast” - and these artist colonies were situated on the coast - many of the artists were drawn to the trees and the forests. “They wanted to look at the landscape and observe nature and man’s relationship to it,” she said during a recent tour of the exhibition.

New York teacher Robert Henri considered summer his “great season of work.” He retreated to rural settings to concentrate on his own art. Between 1903 and 1918, Monhegan Island was a favored destination. He encouraged his most promising students at the New York School of Art, including Hopper, Bellows and Kent to join him on the island. According to the curators these artists “sought simplicity, purity, and honesty as a counterpoint to the complexity of the modern city.” Henri’s “The Gray Woods,” and his “Barnacles On Rocks,” represent his attention to the primitive locale of Monhegan Island.

This is an exciting time to visit the Call of the Coast exhibition for the Florence Griswold Museum presents “The Magic of Christmas” through Jan. 10.

Visitors can view a variety of decorated “fantasy’ Christmas trees decorated by local artists and designers in the Krieble Gallery, also where the 12-foot Miss Florence’s Artist Tree, is now on exhibit for the sixth year. The concept for the Artists Tree drew inspiration from the painted panels in the Florence Griswold House

The tree is decorated with 106 artists’ palettes painted by contemporary artists from Maine to Oregon.

This year, the local artists whose palettes have been added to the tree include the following: Maryann Rupp, Killingworth, Nelson White, Waterford, Jan Blencowe, Clinton; Laura Williams, Chester; James Polesky, Branford; Park Petrovic and Kari Russell Pool, Centerbrook; Jean Callan King and James Murphy, East Haddam; Alicia Mellizzo, Deep River; Laurel Friedmann, Old Saybrook; Pam Nelson, Old Lyme; and Jerry Caron, Uncasville.

Also, this is a special time to tour the Florence Griswold house which was renovated in 2006. This time of year, the table is set with Miss Florence’s Christmas china and the rooms exhibit touches of Christmas as it would have been in 1910.

Every Sunday, from 1 to 5 p.m., now through Jan. 10, the Florence Griswold Museum offers hands-on-art making fun for all ages. In addition, the museum shop in the Krieble Gallery offers a variety of holiday ornaments and gifts.

The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Closed New Year’s Day. Admission: $9 adults, $8 seniors, $7 students and free to children 12 and under. Visit or call 860-434-5542.