Above: Thomas Cole, Study for “A Wild Scene,” 1831. Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
Art and nature lovers of Fairfield, look for flocks migrating to Old Lyme’s Florence Griswold Museum (flogris.org). This destination is a prime summer road trip to explore the Connecticut River Valley and its artistic history. “To walk with nature as a poet is the necessary condition of a perfect artist,” noted Hudson River landscape painter Thomas Cole (above). No field glasses or Orvis wading boots needed to spot black-billed cuckoos, whooping cranes and hummingbirds. They have been captured by master artists of field, stream, woodlands, lakes and seas. The exhibit “Flora and Fauna: The Naturalist Impulse in American Art” features seventy pieces documenting the American experience from naturalist paradise to endangered wasteland. Curator Jenny Parsons, PhD, argues that this show is “mindful of environmentalism and the threat of human impact on the land.”
Wild at Heart
Foraging into the tidal changes of artistic shifts from nineteenth-century scientific observation to the spontaneity and free-flowing observations of early-twentieth-century Impressionism, this show animates the mission of the FloGris. Bringing the splendors of nature to its gallery walls, the museum celebrates the outdoors through the artist’s lens.
Feel the powerful presence of Willard Metcalf’s obsessively arranged collection of bird eggs, moths and butterflies. Metcalf (1858–1925), a founding member of The Ten (America’s pioneering Impressionists) takes ornithology and lepidopterology beyond a passing hobby. One recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s inquisitive sketchbooks filled with creepy crawlies, botanical specimens and birds in flight.
Time travel to the turn of the century when Miss Florence began renting rooms to her artist friends from New York and Boston; her Georgian-style residence emerged as the gathering point for America’s most beloved painters. The Griswold’s funky Victorian parlors, Bohemian-styled decorated bedrooms, scratchy Victrola grinding burlesque ragtime and outdoor studios thrived as a bucolic haven on the banks of the Lieutenant River, a gently winding branch of the mighty Connecticut River.
After viewing the boarding house, a National Historical Landmark, make your way to the galleries to enjoy the “Flora and Fauna” exhibit.
In Our Image
With its light immersed Krieble Gallery beckoning, encounter “The Artist-Naturalist in Early America,” highlighting the forging of a new national identity, even as our artistic heritage remained beholden to European academic models of the Grand Tradition. Works by Charles Willson Peale and his brood of talented offspring are treasures of America in its infancy.
The Hudson River School section offers firsthand observation of the American landscape portrayed through our growing national consciousness. Although sometimes making New Hampshire’s White Mountains into jagged versions of the more romantic crests of the Swiss alps, Cole and his colleagues upheld a quasi-liturgical allegiance to the “truth of nature” as divine handicraft.
American Still Life is marvelously documented straddling the boundaries between still life and scientific illustration. These quiet, reflective images merge together the highest aspirations of science and art. Their tenacity reveal a new kind of visual intelligence on the cusp of modernity.
For those who grew up learning the subtle differences between the infinite varieties of finches, warblers or seagulls from Roger Tory Peterson (1908–96) and his iconic field guides and bird books will relish his original gouache and watercolor samples here. Representing the exhibit’s logical coda, Peterson is honored here as the John Jay Audubon of the twentieth century. He lived on seventy acres in Old Lyme since 1954, using this natural sanctuary as his perch for producing many of his incredibly renowned fifty-three bird-guide books.
As we begin to feel more urban congestion and a sense of loss of our country-living lifestyle, Fairfielders will certainly appreciate why the artworks on display remind us of how and why we hope to see America’s natural paradise being protected and honored into the twenty-first century.
The “Flora and Fauna” exhibit runs until September 17.
96 Lyme St., Old Lyme