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Where American Impressionism bloomed

Florence Griswold's boardinghouse became a haven for artists, and a legacy for the future

Florence Griswold was the kindly landlady artists dream of. The sort who offers cheap rent, lots of encouragement, and lets her tenants pay her by painting on the walls and doors of her home when they can't afford the rent.

The daughter of a once-wealthy clipper ship captain, she turned her 1817 Georgian-style mansion in the southeastern Connecticut town of Old Lyme into a boardinghouse that became the birthplace of the most famous American Impressionist art colony.

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The first painter to arrive was Henry Ward Ranger in 1899, fresh from studies in Europe, and eager to form an art colony for landscape painting modeled on the French Barbizon school.

Soon, the reputation of the congenial "Miss Florence" spread – $7 per week for room and board, plus the camaraderie of other artists, was hard to resist.

When Childe Hassam came in 1903, the focus of what was known as the Lyme Art Colony shifted from Tonalism to Impressionism. The dozens of artists who came preferred to work outdoors, capturing the seasons, fields, flowers, weathered farmhouses, white churches, wooden bridges, and other scenes in the tranquil lower Connecticut River Valley, near Mystic Seaport. They emulated Monet, Renoir, and other French Impressionists.

Today, Griswold's boardinghouse is the Florence Griswold Museum, a National Historic Landmark whose collection features more than 400 paintings and 2,000 watercolors, prints, and drawings by 135 Lyme Art Colony artists, such as Hassam, Ranger, William Chadwick, and Willard Metcalf.

The yellow-clapboard, white-columned museum, which opened 10 years after Griswold's death in 1937, also features the studio of artist William Chadwick and a lovely garden on an 11-acre site along the Lieutenant River.

But one of its most charming features is found in the dining room. There, 41 panels on the walls and doors are decorated with landscapes by more than 30 artists, inspired by traditions in inns near French art colonies such as Barbizon and Giverny.

Open year-round, with shorter hours January through March, the Florence Griswold Museum gives visitors art materials (free with $5 admission) and the chance to paint outdoors in the garden or riverside on Sundays, April through November. For children, hands-on art projects, storytelling, and a teddy-bear tea (bring your own bear) are held through December.

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The Florence Griswold Museum – just a few minutes' drive across the Connecticut River from Old Saybrook, an Amtrak train stop – is one of 11 sites on the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, a testament to the state's important role in American Impressionist art.

Also on the trail is the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the oldest art museum in the US.

Displayed in the Atheneum's collection of 50,000 works are art by Hassam, Metcalf, Mary Cassatt, and J. Alden Wei; big Hudson River landscapes by Frederick Edwin Church; plus Monets and Renoirs.

Hill-Stead Museum in nearby Farmington – the former home of Impressionist art collector Alfred Pope, a self-made steel magnate – is filled with paintings by Monet, Manet, and Degas. The New Britain Museum of Art, a 20-minute drive from Farmington, houses works by Hassam as well as by Church, John Singer Sargent, and Gilbert Stuart.

Cassatt used to love strolling through antique-filled Hill-Stead, which Henry James once described as "apparently conceived ... on the lines of a magnificent Mount Vernon." Isadora Duncan used to dance in its gardens.

Other sites include Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, where a self-guided trail compares paintings with the original landscapes, and the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich, where American Impressionist artists also stayed.

But I preferred to experience the landscapes that inspired American Impressionism in the lower Connecticut River Valley, and found the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat an ideal way to do it. I boarded the vintage steam-powered, coal-burning train in Essex, a quaint town a few minutes north of Old Saybrook.

Founded in 1648, Essex was a prosperous shipbuilding center by the 1700s. Many Colonial and Federal-style houses in pristine condition, built by sea captains, line the streets. The town also boasts an abundance of antiques shops.

Before boarding the train, consider stopping for a meal at the Griswold Inn, opened in 1776 by Sala Griswold. It's called the oldest continuously operating inn in Connecticut and is a reminder that Miss Florence belonged to one of the area's oldest and most notable families.

The inn's Covered Bridge Room was built from an abandoned covered wooden bridge. The handsome Tap Room was built as a schoolhouse in 1738 but later was moved to the inn, which displays a large collection of Currier & Ives steamboat prints, marine art, and historic firearms.

A huge English hunt breakfast is served every Sunday, with unlimited quantities of roasted meats, chicken, cod, and smoked bacon and sausage. This massive meal is a custom started by the British, who occupied the inn during the War of 1812 and burned 28 ships in Essex harbor.

Chugging along on the steam train in mid-October, we admired trees ablaze with leaves of crimson, orange, amber, and yellow. Then we disembarked and switched to a riverboat. We cruised the picturesque lower Connecticut River Valley, dubbed by the Nature Conservancy as one of the Western Hemisphere's 40 most important natural habitats and "last great places" worth saving.

Our boat passed Gillette Castle, a hilltop fieldstone mansion, which reminded me of castles on the Rhine. It was built by William Gillette, a stage actor best-known for playing Sherlock Holmes in the early 1900s.

Gillette so adored his eccentric castle that his will requested it "should not pass to any blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded."

When we reached the Goodspeed Opera House, a beautiful Victorian building overlooking the river in East Haddam, it was time for me to get off, instead of going back to Essex.

Although a dinner train runs weekend evenings June through October, I took the day ride, since I had tickets to a musical at Goodspeed that night.

During intermission I gazed at the Connecticut River from the outdoor balcony, just as Victorian theatergoers did.

The next day, I continued exploring the area. A few minutes past Essex is Chester, a quaint river town where many artists live.

One of my favorite places, Chester charms me because it's a hodgepodge of colorful old buildings, not just the pristine white Colonials found in many Connecticut towns, and because it is eminently walkable.

Chester's Main Street winds, as a country road should, instead of sticking to a straight line, and there's a lovely pond up Spring Street, where I lingered, staring at the crisp reflection of trees in the water.

I also lingered at Nilsson Spring Street Gallery & Studio, which sells many Impressionist-style landscapes by Leif and Katherine Nilsson.

Souleiado en Provence, a shop that offers French country textiles and accessories, is located across the street from Nilsson and from Connecticut River Artisans, which houses a variety of crafts and home furnishings, on Water Street.

A theater for new playwrights, Goodspeed-at-Chester, is also located here.

For those who would like to explore the area by car, the Connecticut River Valley & Shoreline Visitors Council publishes scenic drive routes on its website (www.cttourism.org).

But whether you drive, take a boat, or ride the train, the area's serene natural beauty and man-made structures beg to be painted, just as the Lyme artists thought. "I want you to see a little of this beautiful country where pictures are made. Your stop is Lyme," Ranger once wrote to his agent in New York.

If you go:

Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail PO Box 793, Old Lyme, CT 06371 www.arttrail.org

Connecticut River Valley and Shoreline Visitors Council 800-486-3346 www.cttourism.org

Florence Griswold Museum 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, Conn. Admission: $5 adults, free for children under 12 (860) 434-5542 www.flogris.org

Essex Steam Train & Riverboat 800-ESSEX-TRAIN www.essexsteamtrain.com