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Lyme Art Colony
(January 14, 1861–May 18, 1935)
In Lyme: Periodically, 1904-1908
Biographers usually designate Walter Griffin’s Old Lyme period as the first important phase of his career. Yet Griffin was an established artist when he came to this state and was in Connecticut at least five years before going to Old Lyme. In 1903 his work was in an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum , Hartford, featuring "four of Connecticut’s best known artists" the others: Allan Talcott, Charles Noel Flagg, and William Gedney Bunce).
Griffin’s father was a carver of ship figureheads in Maine and a member of a Sunday painting group, "The Brush-uns," which Griffin joined as a youngster. In 1877, when he was sixteen, he began five years of study at the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1882 he enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he worked under and became close friends with Montague Flagg, a nephew of Washington Allston. Other friends were William Merritt Chase, Willard Metcalf, Emil Carlson, Childe Hassam, Robert Brandegee, and Charles Foster.
Griffin went to France in 1887 and studied with Raphael Collin, and, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, with Jean-Paul Laurens. He exhibited at the 1889 Salon. By then he had already discovered the villages of Barbizon and Fleury and become friends with Francois Millet. A year or so later he settled in Fleury and established art classes. Mostly he stayed in France until 1897.
By 1898 Griffin was in Hartford. He had a studio in the gas company building at 700 Main St. and taught at the school of the Art Society of Hartford (now Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford). Though classes were often held in the Morgan Memorial building of the Wadsworth Atheneum, they were never administered by the museum, and Griffin was never director or curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum, as some have reported. While records of the Art Society are incomplete, Griffin is listed as late as the 1905-06 year as the school’s only instructor, with a gifted former student as his assistant – Louis Orr, the future etcher.
Griffin must soon have felt at home in Hartford. His friends Robert Brandegee and Charles Foster were living in nearby Farmington and Montague Flagg’s half-brother, Charles Noel Flagg, had organized and was directing the Connecticut League of Student Artists. Faculty and students regularly went out to Farmington to sketch, paint, and talk art with Brandagee and Foster. In 1899 Griffin was married in Hartford to Lillian Baynes, who had served as secretary-treasurer of the summer art school he had opened in Quebec in 1897 or 1898 and continued at least through 1899.
Griffin loved Farmington. In November, 1900, he published a rhapsodic tribute to that village about ten miles west of Hartford : I have never been able to help comparing the two villages with which I am most familiar, - Barbizon, France and Farmington . . . Farmington might be called the Barbizon of America." Only Farmington was better , he asserted, "typical of what is best in our villages."
These words and others by Griffin appeared in a monthly called Farmington Magazine, an idea of Robert Brandegee’s that lasted a couple of years in 1900-02. Griffin’s wife was listed as associate editor in the first number, November 1900, and Griffin not only contributed essays on art for the first six months, but his cover design was used throughout the run. He advertised portfolios of sketches he had done of "interesting features of Farmington," priced at $5.00, available at the local drug store or on order from his Hartford studio. He also talked about Farmington as a favorite "colony" for artists from "Hartford, Boston, New York, and other cities. . . Almost every day their white umbrellas have been seen near the river, through the town, and among the hills." He proposed annual summer exhibitions of Farmington art, which never materialized.
Griffin visited Farmington often. He took part in painting scenes on door and wall panels in a local home as he was to do again in Old Lyme later. He is listed among the Hartford guests at an exclusive reception in 1901 for President Theodore Roosevelt at the Farmington home of Roosevelt’s sister, Mrs. William S. Cowles. He is remembered by some of the village’s older citizens.
In 1903 several of Griffin’s friends were in Old Lyme. Allen Talcott began going in 1901, and Child Hassam and Henry White arrived in 1903. Perhaps Griffin visited, for William Chadwick remembered that Griffin came down early on. The summer of 1904 Griffin was certainly there and exhibited in the annual exhibition. He then exhibited regularly until 1910 and again from 1915-17. Old Lyme and its artists influenced Griffin and he them. His oils brightened and he did fine drawing in hard point pastels. He decided to give up teaching in order to devote himself to art.
By 1908, however, Griffin’s marriage was awry. He and his wife had stayed in New York in the cooperative studio apartments on W. 67th St., where Ranger, Hassam, and other friends lived. But in late February, 1908, Griffin wrote to Florence Griswold that the Player’s Club would be his address for a while. In early June, 1909, he sent her $30 against his bill, advised her to rent his Old Lyme studio and room, and gave Portland, Maine as his address "until further notice." So 1908 seems to mark the end of Griffin’s Old Lyme period, though he exhibited again and as late as 1918 was writing Miss Florence that he would surely visit her even though he could not summer with her.
Thereafter Griffin lived abroad more often than at home: 1909-10, Norway (his Old Lyme friend William Singer was there); 1913, Venice (William Gedney Bunce was there); 1911-18, Boigneville, France (Griffin was mistakenly arrested as a war spy, acquitted, and in the United States for part of this period); Stroudwater, Maine; and 1923-33, France (periodically). The village of Contes, sixteen miles inland from Nice, became his favorite painting site after 1926. Griffin’s last two years were spent in Maine, in failing health, but he painted until nearly the end. Exhibitions had been frequent and well received. Awards and honors had come steadily. He had been an Academician of the National Academy since 1922. Griffin was honored by the Academy soon after he died in 1935, with a joint memorial exhibition for him and for his old friend, Childe Hassam.
Lovejoy, Rupert. "The Life and Work of Walter Griffin, 1861-1935." American Art Review, 2 (Sept.- Oct. 1975), 92-107.
Merrick, L. "Walter Griffin, Artiste." International Studio, 62 (August 1917), xlv-xlviii.
Walter Griffin, 1861-1935: Maine Impressionist. Exh. cat., William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, Rockland, Me., 1978.