What the impressionists saw
August 27, 2017
By Mary Biekert Day staff writer
Visiting the Florence Griswold Museum typically involves roaming about the museum galleries and through the historical Florence Griswold house, observing the many paintings that arose out of the American impressionist movement — a movement that primarily gained traction through its beginnings at the property in the early 20th century.
On the outdoor grounds of the museum, the gardens, perfectly mowed lawns, and tidied riverfront also give a better understanding of the beauty that once drew hundreds of artists from around the country.
All of that, however, is only a glimpse into the many parts of the property that offered inspiration to the artists, museum director Jeff Andersen says. The rest of the 13-acres, on the other hand, isn’t being utilized and is not organized in a way that is conducive for exploring.
“The property we have now is still at a disconnect with the landscape that used to exist,” museum director Jeff Andersen says. “Elements of it can be understood, of course, but we want to provide our visitors an authentic sense of how the Lyme Art Colony painters interacted with the land and the site’s agrarian past.”
Solving that issue, however, has led way to a comprehensive $1-million landscape plan that the museum has recently started developing. The plan, Andersen says, is to reimagine the entire property by reorganizing and restructuring it in a way that will allow for visitors to easily explore the grounds.
The highlight of the project will feature a half-mile walking path that will encircle the museum’s campus where forested shrubbery presently exists, allowing visitors to gain further insight into all the components that once made up the property.
The plan also seeks to restore the once-existent ecology by reestablishing the meadows and wetland gardens, among other areas. All of this, Andersen says, will help enhance an already thriving ecosystem for bird, plant and animal life.
“Highlighting the landscape of the property is a vitally important part in understanding the experience of the many artists who came to reside at the Florence Griswold House,” he says. “This landscape plan strives to present exactly that.”
In April, the museum finally acquired the last remaining piece to the 13 acres that made up Florence Griswold’s original property. Since her death in 1937, the estate had been divided, redistributed and redeveloped, losing many of the ecological aspects that once constituted much of the land. Since the museum opened in 1947, it has been a long-term goal to obtain all parcels of that original plot.
“Finally obtaining this last piece was really the catalyst to set this landscape idea into motion,” Andersen says.
After April, the museum was presented with the chance to apply for a $1 million grant through the Robert F. Schumann Foundation, the founder of which used to be heavily involved with the museum during his lifetime. The grant was awarded to the museum in July.
Since then, the museum has selected Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects, based out of Cambridge, Mass., to oversee the project.
“We knew that we wanted to incorporate the history of the landscape and the history of the region with the visitor experience, and that’s the question we used when seeking an architect,” Andersen says. “Stephen and Lauren Stimson were able to grasp that idea, and it was more than clear that they were the right ones for this project.”
They began tackling the project by first asking to study the archives of the museum, Andersen says.
“What they discovered was that the property was really ‘a land of edges.’ From its historic hedgerows lining the property borders to its surrounding forest patches and marshland gardens, the parts that often inspired the artists, they learned, were set along the edges of the property,” Andersen says.
The paintings and photographs found in the archives also gave way to understanding the since-lost farmland setting that comprised much of the estate. One such painting depicts dozens of bales of hay sitting over a harvested field of grass. Another shows a woman picking vegetables in the height of summer. Photographs, too, were left behind — highlighting the various locations on the edges of the property that the artists utilized. In one photo, an artist can be seen standing among the forested shrubbery in front of an easel. In another, Florence Griswold herself can be seen looking down into the stream that once flowed past the front yard.
“It’s these areas that were a part of their experience but have largely been lost today. This encompassing landscape is vitally important to the visitor experience,” Andersen says. “Our vision is to highlight the edges of the property — the hedgerows, cart paths, riverfront meadows, woodland thickets — and to reincorporate all of that back in to what exists now.”
Getting visitors out of the museum buildings and around the campus has been an ongoing issue of sorts, says marketing director Tammi Flynn. Recently, the museum launched an exhibition that aimed to help combat this problem. “Connecting Art & Nature: The Flora/Fauna Trail” features a scavenger hunt that encourages visitors to seek out informational, pre-planned stops around the grounds. The exhibition, however, is temporary, and the outdoor element of it is overshadowed by its complementary display indoors, Flynn says. “Ordinarily, most visitors only will walk between the Krieble Gallery and the original house. They may also walk down to the riverfront. But other than that, the rest of the property isn’t being experienced much,” Flynn says.
Andersen says that striking a balance between the cultural and ecological interpretation of the museum landscape has been important aspect while developing the plan.
“Enhancing, diversifying and restoring the native landscape has been paramount to this plan,” Andersen says. “And these architects understand how to accomplish that. They even have a nursery where they experiment with plants in different settings. Knowing this will ensure that the plants we transplant into this setting will thrive in a New England climate.”
The Landscape Plan includes a new Artist’s Trail. The proposed Artists’ Trail, designed by Stephen Stimson Landscape Architects of Cambridge, MA, will guide visitors around the Florence Griswold Museum’s property, where a generation of painters created an art colony that would become the nation's center of American Impressionism.
Besides still needing town approval for the project, Andersen says that he hopes that construction for the two-phase landscape plan will begin as early as fall 2018. The first phase will complete three parts of the walking path, while the second phase will include the reestablishment of the various eco-systems, along with the relocation of two of the buildings on campus, one of which is William Chadwick’s art studio.
“This has been a golden opportunity to rethink the role of this site in history but also to rethink the nature of the site and to bring back its agrarian roots,” Andersen says. “We hope the plan will provide a visitor experience that interweaves art, history, and landscape in ways rarely found in the museum world.”