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Harry Leslie Hoffman
Lyme Art Colony
(March 16, 1871–March 6, 1964)
In Lyme: Summers, 1902-1909; Permanently, 1910-1966
Harry Hoffman, back in Old Lyme after a short period of study at the Academie Julian in Paris in 1903, invited Willard Metcalf to critique his recent work. "The trouble with you, Hoffman ," Metcalf advised, "is you’re going around with a ball and chain tied to your feet. Go out and paint what you see and forget your theories."
Only a few months before, Hoffman had concluded his first one-man show – a small exhibition at the American Art Association in Paris. Besides studying in Paris, he had worked at Yale under John Ferguson Weir (father of J. Alden) and at the Art Students League with Frank Vincent DuMond. Given Hoffman’s solid art education, Metcalf’s remark must have jolted the young artist. Under Metcalf’s guidance, Hoffman soon became a proponent of Impressionism, painting such brightly rendered canvases as Childe Hassam’s Studio.
Harry Hoffman first came to Old Lyme in 1902 with his good friend Arthur Heming. Both were students of DuMond and that first year stayed in a private home and took their meals at Florence Griswold’s house. They evidenced promise as artists and were quickly drawn into the new colony’s membership. Hoffman returned each summer, though once at least, when he was very short of money, he nearly made a switch to a career that could have parted him from Old Lyme forever. The former Yale athlete wrote to Heming , who was already at the Griswold House: "Have just been offered good pay to pitch for a professional baseball team. Shall I accept?" Heming was appalled and says he saved Hoffman for the art world by arranging for him to model for the sculptor Tait McKenzie, who had an order to do an athletic figure during his Old Lyme summer, and to take down, in shorthand, DuMond’s Saturday afternoon lectures to his summer class. Luckily Hoffman was a man of several talents.
Another of them came in handy when he was courting his wife. Despite protestations to his friends at the Griswold House that he intended to work hard at art in the summers and "steer clear of girls," he was immediately attracted to a Miss Beatrice Pope from East Orange, New Jersey, who arrived for a stay at Miss Florence’s one summer. Arthur Heming , whose remembrances of Old Lyme are sometimes heightened, says the girl was the daughter of a woman who had spent a quiet summer with Miss Florence back in the days when she ran a girls’ boarding school. She wanted her daughter to recuperate from too many dinners and dances at a country place that had no men, and Miss Florence and the artists thought it would be a good joke not to tell her about the new art colony that was in the house, eagerly awaiting the arrival of her young daughter. Since the young lady’s sister Florence was one of three women who came to Old Lyme around 1905 to study art with Henry Rankin Poore, Heming’s version of the Hoffman- Pope romance may be fanciful.
Still, his memory of the two young people canoeing in the moonlight on the Lieutenant River is probably not far-fetched. He says Hoffman, who thought of becoming a professional flutist for a time, serenaded his lady on the flute with "Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark!" In little more than a week, the two were engaged, and to Hoffman’s surprise he had fallen in love with a girl who was wealthy. His money troubles were over.
When he married Beatrice Pope in 1910, her family set up the newlyweds in a spacious house on a hilltop off Sill Lane in Old Lyme. They made their permanent home after a lengthy honeymoon in Spain (where Hoffman was mistakenly arrested as a spy while sketching in a forbidden spot in Palos). Following the tradition established in the Griswold House, Hoffman decorated his own house with panel paintings over the doors and on the wainscoting.
By the 1920s Hoffman had achieved a reputation for highly unusual paintings of underwater life. Having fashioned a bucket with a glass bottom that he floated on the water’s surface, he made rapid notes in watercolor of what he observed. These sketches became the basis of several hundred paintings of the undersea. Hoffman accompanied the eminent naturalist William Beebe on research trips to the Galapagos Islands, Bermuda, and British Guiana in order to pursue his specialty. He was entranced by the colors he saw under the ocean’s surface:
. . . Not one color, nor was it one tint or shade. It was all colors, but in the same value. And the only way to paint it was impressionistically, using broken colors of light pink, green, violet, and blue. These colors thin out in the distance so that they merge into the disappearing iridescence.
The artist received a prestigious gold medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, the 1924 Eaton Purchase Prize of the Lyme Art Association, and the Landscape Prize of the New Haven Paint and Clay Club in 1925. He was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1930. His friends were equally proud of Hoffman’s role in assisting Florence Griswold when she was old and about to lose her house. He was instrumental in promoting and served as treasurer for, the fund "Miss Florence’s artists" established in order to buy the Griswold House, assure her of a home in it for life, and preserve it as museum after her death.
Although many of the American Impressionists lived long lives, Hoffman had one of the longest. He lived to be ninety-two and had been in Old Lyme more than sixty years when he died in 1964.
Hoffman, Harry L. Personal Interview. Old lyme, August 5, 1954. Transcript, Lyme Historical Society Archives.
"The Painter Who Found a New World Underseas." New Haven Register, May 19, 1963.