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Willard Leroy Metcalf

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Willard Leroy Metcalf
Lyme Art Colony
American, (July 1, 1858–March 9, 1925) In Lyme: 1905-1907
Beginning in 1904, Willard Metcalf kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and magazine notices of his exhibitions and prizes. On the inside cover he had written, "A partial history of the Renaissance," an allusion to the new direction his art had taken in 1904, when he was forty-six years old. He seems to have determined in about 1903 to confront nature as it was in New England. "He would leave the city as if for a campaign," the art critic Royal Cortissoz reported, "and bring back his sheaves with something of the air of a fighter who had conquered another step in his march." In 1904 he painted mostly near Boothbay, Maine, living at times in a tent beside the Damariscotta River, and when he exhibited twenty-one paintings (not all of them new) in his first New York one-man exhibition at Fishel, Adler, and Schwartz Gallery in 1905, critics like Cortissoz said that "it was plain he had greatly widened his range . . . a sympathy more alert and more penetrating." A year after Metcalf’s renaissance began, he went to Old Lyme.

Metcalf had his first art training from a wood engraver in Boston in the mid-1870s, then from George Loring Brown, a painter trained in and respectful of the great traditions in European art. Later Metcalf studied at the new art school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He illustrated an article for Harper’s with sketches of the Zuni Indians, whom he had observed and sketched the previous year on a trip to the Southwest. In 1883 he illustrated a three-part essay Frank Cushing, a Smithsonian ethno-anthropologist, had written about the Zunis for Century Magazine.

In the fall of 1883 Metcalf went to the Academie Julian, Paris, where he worked under Boulanger and Lefebvre. He stayed both at Grez and Giverny, and he met Theodore Robinson, John Twachtman, and the writer Robert Louis Stevenson while in France. He visited Tunis and Morocco in 1887 and in 1888 exhibited at the Paris Salon, receiving an honorable mention for The Arab Market. Then he returned to the United States, where he was given a one-man exhibition at the St. Botolph Club in Boston in 1889. In New York he taught first at the Art Students League for a year and then, for ten years, at the Cooper Union. He was a founder of the Ten American Painters. He not only exhibited with The Ten but, like many other artists then, contributed to major expositions of the period, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where he won a medal.

By May of 1905, Metcalf was in Old Lyme, "working hard," his friend Childe Hassam wrote to J. Alden Weir. Hassam was surely the reason Metcalf went to Old Lyme, but, once there, he quickly became a leading figure himself. The following winter Fishel, Adler, and Schwartz exhibited "12 landscapes painted in oil during the past summer at Lyme, Connecticut." The summer of 1906 Metcalf was again in Old Lyme and did a moonlit view of the Griswold House that became his best known work, May Night. He returned that fall, telling Miss Florence he wanted to do more work before snow flew. Snow came while he was still there, however, and he painted a few fine snow scenes. An exhibition that winter at the St. Botolph Club was a breakthrough – a near sellout. That success and a prize from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington for May Night assured Metcalf’s future.

In 1907 Metcalf spent the summer in Old Lyme and probably some time in the fall as well. A letter he wrote Miss Florence from the Players Club in New York, December 27, asked her to send a paintbox he had left behind and told her "I’m still alive and kicking – grumbling and fussing over this impossible life in this city."

In 1908 and 1909 Metcalf painted at times at Leete’s Island near Guilford, as well as in other places in the state. Notice in the New York times in early January, 1910, of his exhibition at Montross also had pictures described as mostly scenes in the Berkshires, along the Housatonic River, but Metcalf also painted in Cornish, New Hampshire, about this time.

For several years beginning in 1910, Metcalf, who was married to Henriette McCrea in 1911 (he had had a brief earlier marriage), summered in Waterford. Several paintings were done in or near Waterford. Some pictures in the 1920s were painted in or near Woodbury (and occasionally Metcalf painted in Falls Village while visiting his friend Emil Carlsen), but increasingly Metcalf enjoyed other parts of New England, especially the areas of Chester, Vermont, and the Little Williams River.

Metcalf was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters but refused membership in the National Academy of Design. In 1923 he had a one-man exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which years earlier, had purchased his prize-winning May Night. He died in New York City in 1925, and Milch Galleries, his principal dealer through much of his career, had a memorial exhibition of his work.

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