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May Night: Willard Metcalf at Old Lyme

May 1 - September 11, 2005


The profound impact of Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925) on the course of the Lyme Art Colony, America's center of Impressionism, has never been extensively chronicled.  The exhibition May Night: Willard Metcalf at Old Lyme, on view from May 1 through September 11, 2005, brings the artist's achievements at last to light.   Based on new scholarship, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue trace Metcalf's frequent visits to Florence Griswold's boarding house in Old Lyme, Connecticut between 1905 and 1907 and examine the pivotal role of these experiences to his growing reputation as one of America's preeminent landscape painters. (right: Willard L. Metcalf, Self Portrait, Florence Griswold Museum)

The Florence Griswold Museum is home to the largest public collection of artifacts relating to Willard Metcalf, with objects ranging from oil paintings, pastels, and silverpoints to sketchbooks, a diary, and even a cabinet of "curiosities" gathered by the artist during the course of his prolific career.  The exhibition May Night emphasizes these holdings as well as loans from distinguished private collections and public institutions such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Smithsonian American Art Museum, both in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  In an unprecedented synthesis of Metcalf's greatest loves -- art and the natural world -- over 40 plein-air paintings are exhibited alongside the artist's collections of meticulously labeled birds' eggs and nests, moths, and butterflies.


Summers in Old Lyme

Metcalf arrived in Old Lyme in May of 1905, invited by friend and fellow artist Childe Hassam (1859-1935).  He was quickly taken with the beauty of the area, the companionship of the other artists, and the charm of "Miss Florence" who single-handedly managed the boisterous group at her boarding house along the banks of the Lieutenant River.  Dr. Bruce Chambers, author of the lead essay for the catalogue, notes that this was the "most pivotal period of Metcalf's career," and adds that, "neither his own painting nor American Impressionism would ever be quite the same again."  Over the next three summers at Old Lyme Metcalf would produce many of his most important works and develop the artistic philosophy for which he would become best known. "Forget your theories," he told one of his fellow artists.  "Always paint what you see." 

Rather than adopting a uniform style, Metcalf allowed his subject matter to determine his technique.  His works from this period display an impressive variety of approaches, ranging from the refined and delicate to the expressive and robust, each shift in brushwork and texture calculated to elicit specific effects of light, atmosphere, and mood. In The First Snow (No. 2) (1906, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), for example, the fallen flakes are seemingly held in place by Metcalf's steady hand.  Smooth passages of oil paint trace the curves of each newly formed drift and readily portray the intensity of Metcalf's vision.  On the other hand, The Poppy Garden (1905, The Manoogian Collection, Detroit), Metcalf's most obvious tribute to Claude Monet (1840-1926) and French Impressionism, presents a very different landscape.  The field is alive with dancing colors, which are rendered in brilliant daubs and dashes by Metcalf's now energetic brush.


May Night: The Artist's Most Celebrated Painting

The landscapes Metcalf created at Old Lyme won him national recognition, and provided the impetus for his subsequent reputation as a major presence in contemporary American art. The painting of the exhibition's title, May Night (1906, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), refers to the title of a moonlit view of the Griswold House.  In 1907, this picture, along with two other Old Lyme paintings, was accepted into the inaugural exhibition of contemporary American paintings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  May Night was awarded a gold medal and the Clark Prize of $1,000, and the Corcoran purchased the painting for the then spectacular price of $3,000.  Now, nearly a century after it was painted, May Night comes "home" to the Florence Griswold Museum.  "The Corcoran Gallery of Art is pleased to participate in this very important exhibition of Metcalf's work by lending May Night, the artist's most celebrated work," explains Sarah Cash, Beachhoefer Curator of American Art at the Corcoran.  She adds, "It is only appropriate that this pivotal painting returns to the site that inspired it, and that played such a significant role in Metcalf's development as an artist." (right: Willard L. Metcalf, May Night, 1906, Corcoran Gallery of Art)


A Reverence for Nature

Just as Metcalf's artistic spirit flourished in Old Lyme, his interest in collecting birds' eggs and nests found new zeal there as well.  "Song Sparrow, Lyme May 20, '05, nest found in brush heap," documents his first visit to Old Lyme. The Florence Griswold Museum now houses this early acquisition and, indeed, Metcalf's entire naturalist collection.  This extraordinary group of objects includes the eggs of hundreds of bird species, several dozen nests, and an impressive number of mounted moths and butterflies, as well as the wooden cabinet with twenty-eight drawers in which the artist bought to store them. This collection will be shown publicly for the first time in a section of the exhibition devoted to Metcalf's activities as a keen observer of the natural world.  The Griswold Museum has worked closely with curators of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale to better understand the historical context of this practice, the significance of Metcalf's own skills as a naturalist, and how they relate to his art. Metcalf's great love of the outdoors, and in particular his enthusiasm for fishing, is evident in several paintings in this exhibition, The Trout Brook (No.1), (1907, Currier Gallery of Art, New Hampshire) among them.  Here, the artist/angler is able to suggest that beneath every carefully recorded ripple of water, there is the promise of a fish's bite.


Metcalf and Artists' Colonies

As a young man Metcalf visited many of Europe's thriving artist colonies. In addition to Walberswick, in England and Grez-sur-Loing, in France, Metcalf was among the first American artists to visit Giverny, the renowned French village in which Claude Monet lived and worked.  Interestingly, Metcalf's initial reason for going to Giverny may have been to collect and study eggs instead of to paint: rather than tutoring two of Monet's children in art, he taught them about botany and ornithology. Whatever his intentions, Metcalf returned to Giverny for two more summers, experimenting with -- but never wholeheartedly adopting -- the high horizons, abrupt cropping, and multiple diagonals of French Impressionism.  For example, Metcalf's Giverny (1887, University of Kentucky Art Museum), a wooded landscape marked by brilliant sunlight and deep shadows, illustrates that Metcalf didn't embrace the broken brushwork or the chromatically divided application of paint favored by Monet and others of his followers. Rather, he continued to live by his self-imposed doctrine: "Paint what you see."  (left: Willard L. Metcalf, A Family of Birches, 1907. Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Metcalf's experiences at Giverny and other colonies abroad, while they did not transform him as an artist, provided the precedent and model for Metcalf's involvement with Old Lyme.  This thriving New England colony was often referred to as the "American Giverny" and Metcalf as one of its leading lights.  May Night: Willard Metcalf at Old Lyme is the first museum exhibition to look at Metcalf's Old Lyme paintings in depth and to place them in the context of his wide-ranging career. 


Catalogue and Programs

Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Dr. Bruce W. Chambers, the Director of the Willard L. Metcalf Catalogue Raisonné Project, and by the Museum's former Curator, Amy Ellis.  Catalogue entries by the Museum's recently appointed Curator of American Art, Dr. Emily M. Florentino-Weeks, focus on Metcalf's Old Lyme pictures, the nucleus of the exhibition. 

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rev. 12/14/06

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