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Florence K all the Way by Carolyn Donovan

Expectations can be a bad thing, because if they aren't met, you can miss out on the unexpected things...

Florence Who?

Who was this Florence K., who had a museum named after herself? Was there a Florence M. Griswold as well, who also had her own museum, and so the “K” was inserted in the sign in order to clarify to whose museum it referred? Was she one of those Connecticut Ladies who did…something…once…and had her childhood home turned into a museum, frozen in time on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, 1-4pm, please phone in advance?

How could this woman NOT start a movement?

Florence K., as it turns out, invented/established/created the American Impressionist movement, all by herself and without meaning to. She came from a wealthy family who’s money had run out by the time she came along, and so to make ends meet she opened her house to boarders, and one summer an artist came, then the next summer another artist came, and before she knew it, she had an artists colony right there in the parlor.

I suppose, if I were more erudite and learn-ed, and possibly soppy (as in sentimental, not rain-soaked), I would know this already. I will admit that while I admire painters and paintings, I know very little about them and theirs generally. It could be because of that time I went to some fancy-pants museum (possibly the National one) and walked into a room that showed a completely white canvas on one wall and a completely white canvas on another wall and they were recognized as different paintings. I mean really, what is a ding-dong like me supposed to think about Study in White #1 and Study in White #2?

I’m Impressed

The American Impressionist movement, which included folks like Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Matilda Browne and William Chadwick, made paintings that, when looked at, you knew what they were about. “Oh, look, the front hall,” “My, how graceful that swan looks,” “Those are azaleas, right?” Of course, the reason the movement was called Impressionist was that these people did not paint the thing exactly; they more or less painted their impression of the thing. Quite a daring path to take back then, when all paintings looked exactly like the thing painted.

What, these aren't azaleas?

Miss Florence was, by all accounts, a gracious and generous hostess, who enjoyed and encouraged her boarders. She was involved with town affairs (she was a founding member of the Old Lyme Fire Department, thank you very much) and a respected member of the community, although on the genteel rather than the gentry side at times. Even though she took in boarders to make ends meet, she sometimes accepted paintings as payment for the board (she turned her front hall into a mini gallery, and offered some of the paintings for sale). She was friends with many people (quick, who was Ellen Axson Wilson? That’s right, Woodrow Wilson’s first wife), even though most of her life was spent in or near her home town.

A gracious welcome still awaits

And so, Miss Florence’s house had been turned into a museum, even though, really, the museum isn’t about her, it is about her colony and her artists. Still, she lived in that house and made it all happen. I was thrilled that (as it was my birthday) I was finally dragging I mean going with Wan to see her house and what happened there.

Happy Birthday – not

I cannot tell you how low and how quickly my spirits plunged when, after parking, I spied the sign that informed me of the closure of Miss Florence’s house until 2006. Renovations and improvements, I believe was the reason. I stood gaping, looking at her great yellow mansion with the white columns all wrapped up in ungainly green chain-linky fence stuff. I believed I cried. But it’s my birthday, I wanted to shout, I’ve come all the way down from Boston to see you!

(I believe part of my despondency had to do with my other birthday present, which I got twice because the first one was so unsatisfactory: a whale watch. I have attempted a whale watch for the last five years and have been thwarted at every turn and in every country. I finally got my whale watch this year, and saw the following number of whales: one. Wan, feeling my pain, arranged for a second whale watch about two weeks later, and we both believe that we saw the same solitary whale on both occasions.)

I was, I have to admit, a bit mopey, but not in a childish, kick-the-curb “stupid museum” kind of way. I defiantly walked up to the back door of the mansion (it was unfenced) and took a peek: Miss Florence had quite a front hallway, that’s all I can say. Well, I reasoned, we were here, and I could either pout about the whole thing (which just gives you wrinkles) or I could buck up and enjoy my day.

You can’t go in, but you can look at paintings

In addition to the house there is the Krieble Gallery, a museum which houses the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection. Although there very well may be a bunch of boilers from Hartford in the basement, the collection actually showcases Connecticut artists, and was given to Florence K.’s museum in 2001. The current show is called “Holy Place” and has a delightful grouping of paintings and other items that has to do with Miss Florence’s house. It is very cool to be standing in the same place that the painter was standing and seeing the same thing that the painter saw (is that a pedestrian thing to say? It’s beyond me to talk about paint application and the interplay between lightness and shadow and…things like that).

The museum juxtaposes the contemporary with the old-fashioned, invoking the evolving nature of art and providing a modern housing for impressionist painting...

The museum grounds form one bank of the Lieutenant River, and Wan decided to take advantage of the museum’s Sunday “Impromptu Encounters with Art.” He was given an artists smock, a painter’s palette with four colors of acrylic paint (red, yellow, blue, and white), three brushes in a pail of water, an 8x10 canvas, a paper towel, a clip board, and a folding stool, and off he/we went to sit by the banks of the river and paint. After I finished being mopey/dopey/opposite of hopey, I went off and got my own painterly props as well, and noticed for the first time how many colors of green there are in a single reed.

Art imitates life...more or less

I can “Sing a Rainbow,” I just can’t paint it

Can I just tell you that I don’t know how to make brown? I made many, many purples, but I failed to achieve brown-ness. I got some nice blues (although none even remotely matched the colors of the river), and I had a lot of greens (which, in spite of my best effort to create grass and reeds on my canvas, looked like a series of run-over toads), and a lot of colors that don’t quite have names but are the result of mixing yellow with red, with white, then blue, then a bit more of the original yellow/red. No wonder they had to invent the word puice.

I now appreciate painters the way I appreciate volleyball players: having played on the volleyball team in high school, I know what goes in to bumping, setting, and spiking; having now tried to make brown, I now know how damnably hard it is to get a blank board to even remotely look like something. Wan, of course, made this completely recognizable landscape, and nobody had to tell me what it was. The most nice thing Wan could come up with when looking at my blobs of paint was “You make good use of color.” Thank you, and the moon is made of cheese…


In spite of the temporary closure of the Griswold house and my ghastly attempts at painting a landscape, I completely recommend a visit to the Florence Griswold Museum (they take out the “K” once you get there). The grounds are lovely, there’s a terrific garden, the museum is a good size, the educational center is neat, and the river has swans in it. It’s wonderful to wander around a place where art was actually made, including the studio of William Chadwick, which was donated to the museum and moved to its present location in 1992.

No wonder the artists showed up

Florence Griswold Museum


96 Lyme Street
Old Lyme, CT 06371
860-434-5542 tel
860-434-9778 fax

Krieble Gallery
Tuesday - Saturday, 10-5
and Sunday, 1-5                        

Griswold House                          
The Griswold House will be under restoration beginning May 1, 2005.
The house will re-open Summer 2006.
Information on the Florence Griswold House Restoration Project

Chadwick Studio
Mid May through October

The Museum is closed Mondays, Easter, July 4, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. The Museum will be open Sunday, January 1.


$7 Adults
$6 Seniors & Students
$4 Visitors 6-12
Free to visitors under 6 and members.


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Photography by Wan Chi Lau