"Only Waiting to be Painted"
Henry Ward Ranger, Connecticut Woods, 1899, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909.7.54
It is not an unusual sight to see an artist with easel and paints alongside one of Old Lyme’s roadways or riverbanks. Generations of artists have sought to capture the beauty of this unique location by painting en plein air, or "painting outdoors," for more than a century.
Old Lyme’s setting, where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound, creates a unique terrain. Trailing estuary rivers, hilly woodlands, and rocky ledges offset sandy beaches and wispy salt marshes. Combined with the village streets that still showcase examples of 19th and even 18th century architecture, Old Lyme calls to the artist passionate to capture the beauty they find in this varied subject matter.
When painter Henry Ward Ranger arrived in Old Lyme from New York City in 1899, he found it to be a perfect landscape for his growing Tonalism movement. He wrote:
“It looks like Barbizon, the land of Millet. See the gnarled oaks, the low rolling country. This land has been farmed and cultivated by men, and then allowed to revert back into the arms of Mother Nature. It is only waiting to be painted.”
The following summer more artists followed Ranger's encouragement and stayed at Miss Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse with its riverside setting, orchard, and flower gardens. The artists spread out across the area by foot or by horse, and began painting the forests, hillsides, and rocky outcroppings.
Willard L. Metcalf, A Family of Birches, 1907, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909.7.46
Soon the Impressionist movement took hold in Old Lyme, with artists Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf arriving to capture the spirit of Old Lyme and its particular light.
Old Lyme still appeals to artists and art lovers alike. Miss Florence's boardinghouse is now a sprawling museum campus, the Lyme Academy has now trained fine artists for five decades, and the art association that the Lyme "art colonists" created in the boardinghouse parlor, now celebrates the centennial of its light-filled galleries. Lyme Street gallerists showcase the works of both current artists and artists of a century ago who stopped along the same street to capture a moment in time.
Artists today continue to capture en plein air their own point of view here. The subject may be the now 300-year old Barbizon Oak, painted by Ranger himself ("Connecticut Woods," top image) and still standing in the Chadwick North Open Space, the historic First Congregational Church, or perhaps even one's own flower garden.
But always, it is the pursuit to capture the beauty and the light of this place only waiting to be painted.