by Hildegard Cummings, independent art historian and curator
Florence Ann Griswold was born on Christmas Day, 1850, to Robert and Helen Griswold in the shoreline town of Old Lyme, Connecticut. “I was never more pleasantly disappointed,” wrote the infant’s mother, announcing the new arrival to the father, who was sailing the Atlantic. Thus she reveals the preference for male heirs in 19th-century America. Because her mother, a dependent widow was living with her, she may have been especially aware of the limited opportunities that her era offered women. Had she known what was to became of her new daughter, she would surely have been amazed.
Florence Griswold had a distinguished ancestry, which assured her of a high social standing not only in her town but beyond. Matthew Griswold (1620-1694) was the founding settler of Old Lyme, and land on the eastern shore of the Connecticut River, granted him in the 1640s, is called Griswold Point. Among a number of his important descendants were two governors of Connecticut, including Florence’s grandfather, who was also a U.S. Congressman and a Connecticut Supreme Court judge. Florence Griswold’s immediate family, however, would be the poor relations in the large and wealthy Griswold clan.
Robert Griswold had begun well. In the early 19th century, two of his brothers ran a shipping line out of New York to the West Indies and China. After sailing those routes, Robert became a transatlantic packet boat captain on a ship owned by another brother. Some of his voyages were so treacherous that grateful passengers presented him with gifts and commendations for their safe arrival. In 1855, weary of the hardships of the sea and lonely for his family, Griswold retired, when he was only 49 and Florence was 5. He may have realized that ocean steamers would soon make sailing ships obsolete. He chose to invest heavily in an ox-and-horseshoe factory in Old Lyme, but it failed in the 1860s, and his family struggled financially from that time on. In 1877, Robert Griswold was not only in poor health but also had three mortgages, totaling nearly $4,000. Caring friends and relatives retired these debts in 1881, but Griswold died the next year, and genteel poverty continued to plague his family.
Florence and her two older sisters had, nonetheless, received the education of socially elite young women. After basic education in a local public school, they attended the Perkins School in New London, a private finishing school run by two of their aunts, where they studied music, painting, the needle arts, and foreign languages. Florence became fluent in French and proficient in piano, harp, and guitar, and she was skilled at English-style horseback riding. Such an education was meant to make a young woman eligible for a suitable marriage, but none of the Griswold sisters married. Instead, they needed to use their fashionable womanly skills in order to live.
In 1878 Helen Griswold and her daughters opened a girls’ school in their home, which ran with modest success until about 1892, with offerings that at times included English, history, French, German, Latin, Greek, ”the higher mathematics,” music, art, and “the rich and elegant styles of French embroidery, ancient and modern, not elsewhere taught in this country.” By 1891 a close friend believed that their only income was from a few seasonal boarders and from lessons in piano and needlework. Matters grew worse. Florence’s sister Louise, a piano teacher and church organist, died in a carriage accident in 1896. In 1899, Helen Griswold died of Bright’s Disease, and daughter Adele, the family artist, was already afflicted with the illness that required permanent commitment to a mental hospital in 1900. Helen and Robert Griswold’s only son had died in 1864 at age 16.
In 1898 Florence Griswold placed ads in a local newspaper, looking to sell (and deliver) pansy and rose plants she propagated in her garden. Even so slight a business venture stretched the limits of the domestic sphere that highbred females were bound by. The boldness of her action suggests that she was strong and self-reliant, but the artist Arthur Heming, who boarded with her in the early 1900s, said she was neither. Nor was she, by other accounts, always sensible. Florence Griswold was, nonetheless, destined to run a famous boardinghouse for artists. Artist Henry Ward Ranger discovered Old Lyme and the Griswold house in 1899 and returned with friends the following spring to create a Barbizon-oriented art colony. With a change in focus after Childe Hassam’s arrival in 1903, it would become the largest and best-known Impressionist art colony in America. Florence Griswold was a major force in making it all happen.
Whatever her shortcomings, character traits that Florence Griswold possessed in abundance made her supremely fit for accommodating artists in her home and creating an atmosphere in which they could flourish. She was by nature and training a gracious hostess, who could mingle comfortably with sophisticated, well-traveled artists. Her education had stressed the arts, and her home was filled with fine things her father acquired in his travels. Her music-making and embroidering had taught her something of the nature of creative work, so when artists came to her home in 1900, she already so deeply admired their talents that she was not at all bothered by any “bohemian” or eccentric tendencies they
Florence Griswold was, moreover, extraordinarily kind, so tenderhearted that she catered joyfully to the needs of her boarders, friends, visitors, and the countless stray cats that flocked to her home. She charged such low rent that often she could not pay her own bills, yet she always extended credit to impecunious guests – even refusing Willard Metcalf’s offer of May Night in lieu of rent, because she thought the painting was the best he had yet done. (It launched his career.)
She packed and shipped paintings and other belongings that her boys, as she called them, left behind. She provided good food and lots of it even if it meant she had to buy on credit. She divided her attic into bedrooms, converted outbuildings into studios, and organized entertainments.
Arthur Heming may not have thought her strong, but he cherished her “lovely air and remarkable gift of making her guests feel that it was their home, and she was visiting them.” Her unfailing optimism also endeared “Miss Florence” to the artists. She became their friend and confidant. Her sunny outlook never wavered, even as her financial troubles multiplied. Eventually, like her father, she had several concurrent mortgages.
In the course of the many years that Miss Florence hosted artists, she evolved from an uncommon but still proper Victorian woman into a leader in Old Lyme’s art community and a participant in town affairs. In a gallery she created in her front hallway, she persuaded visitors to buy paintings. In old age she managed the new Lyme Art Association gallery next to her house.
She supported her town’s first fire department and vigorously, though unsuccessfully, opposed the introduction of a trolley. On a controversial national issue, she stood firm with others in her community, including some of her artists’ wives: she opposed women’s suffrage.
A woman who ran a busy boardinghouse, aggressively sold paintings, and took an active part in her town’s affairs might be expected to favor women’s rights, but Florence Griswold did not fit the stereotype of a suffragette, depicted in print and imagery of the era as athletic, spirited, and restive. Like these feminist “New Women,” she had defied precepts that restricted women of her class to a domain of genteel domesticity, but circumstances, not modern ideas, had shaped her life.
Raised to be a devoted homemaker and caregiver, she may have feared that suffrage would spoil the apolitical, behind-the-scenes power that such traditionally “feminine” women believed they had. Many artists, including several of “her boys,” depicted women of her social class in domestic interiors, seeing them as sedentary, sweet, refined, and contemplative. Such idealized images were as ubiquitous as those that portrayed the New Woman. Florence Griswold — energetic, aggressive, and unconventional, but also refined, domestic, and happily compliant — combined elements of both.
At her boardinghouse, Miss Florence saw two kinds of women. Her live-in domestic staff was largely Irish-American, with few options but to be bound to the service of others. Artists’ wives, temporarily free of their usual demanding domestic and social obligations, were at leisure in her home. They read, took walks, chatted, and shared in various entertainments. A few were artists themselves, and on occasion an unmarried woman artist boarded. No matter what their status, they were typical Victorian woman of the middle class, not feisty “New” women.
The final years of Miss Florence’s life were dismal but did not destroy her optimism. She had few boarders in the 1920s and ‘30s, her health failed, and her money troubles became overwhelming, even though friends and relatives helped out. The Florence Griswold Association was formed in 1936 and found a way for her to stay in her home, where she died in 1937 at the age of 86. Her passing was marked by an outpouring of appreciation for her considerable contribution to the history of American art.