Florence Griswold

Florence Griswold
"So you see, first the artists adopted Lyme, and then Lyme adopted the artists, and now, today, Lyme and art are synonymous."
- Florence Griswold, 1937

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1850

Died: 1937

Inducted: 2002

Town: Old Lyme

Florence Griswold, the daughter of Robert Harper Griswold, a prosperous sea captain, and Helen Powers Griswold, was born on Christmas morning, 1850. As one of Old Lyme’s oldest and richest families, the Griswolds enjoyed a cultivated and privileged life until economic difficulties changed the family’s fortunes. Helen Griswold decided to convert the family home to a finishing school for young ladies. The Griswold Home School for Girls opened in 1878, and Florence would teach there along with her mother and two sisters. Throughout her life, Florence Griswold would continue to confront financial difficulties, and by the late 1890s, she found herself alone on the family homestead. She transformed the school into a boarding house, renting rooms to boarders for $7 per week.

In 1899, Henry Ward Ranger, a painter recently returned from Europe, arrived in Old Lyme and found it an ideal place to establish a new center of American art. He settled at Griswold’s boarding house and the Old Lyme Art Colony was born. Over the next decade, Griswold hosted artists drawn to the allure of Connecticut’s picturesque rural setting, and her home became the center for America’s Impressionist artists, leading some to label Old Lyme the Giverny of America. The Griswold home housed 15 or so artists who traveled to Old Lyme in the summer months to paint en plein air. Griswold provided lodging and meals, but also emotional and artistic support. Regular boarders included both beginning and well-established artists. William Henry Howe, for example, was just starting out while Matilda Browne was already well-known and Childe Hassam quite famous.

Throughout her life, Griswold was involved in civic affairs and was an active member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Connecticut. In Old Lyme, she donated a portion of her land to the Lyme Art Association so that a gallery could be opened. She became the gallery’s first manager and received a portion of all proceeds. Nonetheless, she faced constant debt because of the credit she extended to her boarders. In the mid-1930s, in failing health and facing major financial difficulties, she was forced to consider selling the home to repay her own creditors. As a result, some of the more successful artists whose careers she had helped foster organized the Florence Griswold Association to purchase the property and turn it into a museum. Their efforts, however, ultimately failed, and Judge Robert McCurdy Marsh purchased the property instead, granting Griswold the right to continue living in the home until her death. It was in her family home that Florence Griswold died in December 1937. Her New York Times obituary noted “this generous spirit survives; and not in the Griswold house alone, but as part of no inconsiderable chapter in the history of our native art.”

The Florence Griswold Association succeeded in purchasing the home and property from Judge Marsh in 1941, and in 1947 the Florence Griswold Museum opened to the public. Today the museum is an architectural treasure that occupies a unique place in the history of American Impressionism. It welcomes more than 40,000 visitors a year from around the world and continues to host both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The museum is a part of the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform

When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.

Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”

The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.

In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.

Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.

An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.