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Florence Griswold Museum Celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Transformative Gift
December 26, 2020 EST
An event every week that begins at 10:00 am on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, repeating until December 27, 2020
Nov. 7, 2020 through May 23, 2021
In 2001, The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company donated its art collection of 190 works to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this transformative gift, the Museum presents Expanding Horizons: Celebrating 20 Years of the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection, on view Nov. 7, 2020 through May 23, 2021. The exhibition features highlights from the collection with an emphasis on new methods of research and interpretation. Commemorating these past 20 years, 20 leading art historians have re-examined 20 works through the lenses of environmental art history, material culture, landscape studies and issues of identity, such as gender and race.
The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company’s gift marked an unprecedented milestone in the Museum’s history. As the home of the Lyme Art Colony based at Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse, the Museum’s collection prior to receiving the gift had focused on examples by American Tonalist and Impressionist artists who had painted on its grounds at the turn of the 20th century. With the Hartford Steam Boiler’s gift, the scope of the Museum’s collection instantly broadened, both geographically and chronologically, to include artists working in every corner of Connecticut from the 18th- to the mid-20th century. While landscape was the preferred subject of most Lyme Colony artists, the HSB Collection brought a variety of canonical American portraits, still lifes, figurative compositions, narrative scenes and landscapes painted by Connecticut artists working in other locations. Elizabeth Broun, former director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery observed, the company’s holdings constituted “truly one of America’s landmark collections, the kind that can put a museum on the map.”
This past year the pandemic and increased civil unrest have confirmed, more urgently than ever, that museums cannot be static institutions—they must constantly self-reflect and reevaluate their collections to connect historical works with changes happening in our contemporary world. The field of art history has followed the evolving trajectory of our sociopolitical culture by seeking more inclusive perspectives that reflect greater diversity. The HSB Collection introduced works by Charles Ethan Porter, the first African American artist to be represented in the permanent collection. The acquisition and display of additional artwork created by and about diverse populations in Connecticut is a priority of the Museum moving forward. One section of the exhibition, entitled Revealing Hidden Histories, uses a portrait, a still life and a figurative scene to create a conversation between genres about African American enslavement and racist visual stereotyping, none of which is pictured explicitly.
The second section of the exhibition, Ecocritical Approaches to American Art, considers humans’ interconnectedness with nature through a range of paintings from the Hudson River School to the Impressionists. Alan C. Braddock, Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History and American Studies at William & Mary, analyzes Walter Griffin’s Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1897), whose sitter is adorned with a feathered hat and fur stole, to demonstrate how women’s fashions of the period were linked to destructive hunting practices and the decimation of the avian population, which awakened interest in the burgeoning animal protection movement.
Another section brings together a seemingly disparate group of still lifes, landscapes and figural works under the umbrella theme Theories About Things. Scholars examining these works draw inspiration from recent methodological approaches like Thing Theory and “new materialism.” Both approaches foreground the importance of materials and posit that objects hold knowledge about human history, culture and nature. Jennifer Raab, Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University takes on Frederic E. Church’s The Charter Oak at Hartford, to portray how the tree that came to symbolize civil liberties took on relic status after being toppled by a fierce storm. Fragments of the fallen tree were collected and preserved, as Raab says, to serve as “physical links to the distant past of a nation.”
Identity is a construction—one shaped by culture, individuals and images created by artists and non-artists alike. Inquiring into Identity examines identity through considerations of landscape, portraiture and still life. Katherine Jentleson uses her expertise as the Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, to explain how Harlan Page’s dramatic Portrait of a Man (ca. 1815) contributed to the birth of interest in artists who became known as “folk” artists between the World Wars. With this portrait, Page debunked myths about early settlers by demonstrating that those who were both devout and dedicated to serving their community could also produce outstanding art.
Art history offers a lens for understanding how landscape has embodied concepts of place, property and national identity, with recent studies focusing on social and environmental frameworks. For the exhibition’s final section, New Lenses on Landscape, scholars offer discussion about land ownership, war and urbanization. Horace D. Ballard, Curator of American Art at Williams College Museum of Art explores how the spare composition and saturated color of Leon Dabo’s Low Tide, Oak Point raised “landscape painting to the aesthetic importance of music, photography and poetry” in an era of rapid technological innovation. In another example, exhibition curator Jennifer Stettler Parsons discusses Charles H. Davis’ Twilight over the Water, (1892) in terms of fine art’s intersection with new technologies. In the late 19th century, a proliferation of vivid, mass-produced colors saturated modern life in everything from brilliant, more affordable dyes for clothing, to inexpensively-printed posters and even fireworks. The permeation of color in mass culture emboldened artists like Davis to mix it on their palettes and put on canvas black paint against orange paint against dazzling blue to create a brazen, blazing sky mirrored in the sea.
The HSB Collection was given in the spirit of public accessibility and learning. The Florence Griswold Museum is honored to have been entrusted with the ownership and care of the collection. On this 20th anniversary, Expanding Horizons celebrates not only the milestone gift generously donated by HSB, but the collection’s endless potential to remain current and reveal narratives of utmost relevance for contemporary life.
Located on a 12-acre site in the historic village of Old Lyme, the Florence Griswold Museum is known as the Home of American Impressionism. In addition to the restored Florence Griswold House, where the artists of the Lyme Art Colony lived, the Museum features a modern exhibition gallery, education center, landscape center, extensive gardens and a restored artist’s studio.
The Museum is located at 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT, exit 70 off I-95 and is open year-round through December. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. From January through March the Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $8 students, and free to children 12 and under. Reservations MUST be made at least 24 hours in advance at www.FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org.