In 1878, Henry Ward Ranger, the man who would establish the Old Lyme Art Colony, was still a
young watercolorist with a rising reputation. Like so many others, he relocated from the provinces
(in this case, Syracuse) to Manhattan to further his studies in art. The son of a photographer who
had traveled the world to capture the Transit of Venus, Ranger explored in New York the Barbizon
landscapes of Millet and especially Corot (1). Their sometimes melancholy, sometimes joyous
moods inspired him. He traveled to Paris. He traveled to Holland, to seek out the “linear successors” of the Barbizon movement (2). He worked less in watercolor and more in oils. In the early 1890s,
Ranger returned to America to experiment painting his native country. He sought near New York
unsullied places that offered the same diversity of subject that he had found overseas. In 1899, he discovered Old Lyme.
He arrived at a fortuitous time for a town whose history of receding fortunes could be read across
the weathered façade of the old Griswold house at the north end of Lyme Street. Inside the once
-stately Late Georgian mansion lived Miss Florence Griswold, 49 years old, unmarried, and alone. A failed attempt to establish a finishing school for young girls had compelled her to open a boarding
Ranger fell in love with the landscape. Years later he would famously write to a friend, “It looks like
Barbizon, the land of Millet. See the gnarled oaks, the low rolling country. This land has been
farmed and cultivated by men, and then allowed to revert back into the arms of Mother Nature. It is only waiting to be painted” (4). That first summer, Ranger produced Connecticut Woods, a forest interior view showing a hoary oak illuminated by crepuscular blue light filtering between the
leaves. With its predominantly brownish-orange palette and judicious use of atmosphere, it is a landmark example of the Barbizon style in America, and one in which the rocks, trees, earth, and light of Old Lyme are celebrated to the measure of their ancient history.
Ranger returned to the area the following summer, bringing scores of like-minded artists in his
train. Among them was Allen Butler Talcott, a Hartford native whose style of landscape painting
followed Ranger’s away from strict Barbizon-school pictures toward what gradually became known as American tonalism. Thanks to Ranger’s boisterous and exuberant personality, Miss Florence
soon found her house filled with artists of the first rank. As word spread of the artists’ colony,
pretenders and acolytes crowded Lyme Street. Even the local cows found fresh work as unwitting models. The forgotten town stirred to life.
Ranger ruled supreme until a new lion lumbered into his den of painters. Childe Hassam had
already begun experimenting with Impressionistic techniques by the time he came to call on Miss Florence. As with Ranger, Hassam’s charisma, grounded in his passion for plein air painting,
influenced the style of the artists gathered at the Griswold mansion. With the influx of new artists
like Willard Metcalf and Walter Griffin, and bolstered by the conversion of Allen Butler Talcott, William S. Robinson, Bruce Crane, and others, the colony shifted toward a new brand of
Impressionism, one that would forever establish Old Lyme’s role in the history of American art.
Somewhat disappointed in the new direction of the colony, in 1904 Ranger left Old Lyme and
moved on to Noank, twenty-two miles further down the Connecticut shoreline in 1904. There he
reclaimed his earliest tonal style, with occasional experiments in color studies and compositions with dramatically low horizons. He died in Noank in 1916.
1. Estelle Riback, Henry Ward Ranger: Modulator of Harmonious Color ( Fort Bragg: Lost Coast Press, 2000), 3.
2. Jack Becker, Henry Ward Ranger and the Humanized Landscape (Old Lyme, Florence Griswold Museum, 1999), 12.
3. Ibid., 15.
4. Henry Ward Ranger’s description of Old Lyme is among his most-quoted utterances. It original appeared in the New Haven Morning Journal and Courier on July 5, 1907, and was recently re-published in The Hog River Journal Winter
2005/2006 in an article by Liz Farrow titled The Spirit of Miss Florence Restored.