The Day – Familiar Places Through Artists’ Eyes: Lyman Allyn Exhibit Features Works From Art Colony Mystic

Charles H. Davis probably didn’t know what he was getting into when he moved to Mystic in 1891 after a decade of painting in France.

The newly arrived artist taught local students while continuing to paint, with shifting cloudscapes among his specialties.

Soon, other artists join him, fascinated by the terrain, the houses and the waterfront of the village. Within a few years, Mystic was an art colony.

The Lyman Allyn Art Museum is reaping the rewards of this colony in an exhibit that shows Mystic, Noank and Masons Island through the eyes of the artists they inspired.

“Picture Mystic: Views of the Connecticut Shoreline, 1890-1950” is a gallery of familiar places exalted by brushstrokes. His message is that art is all around us if only we are able to see it.

It’s in welcoming cottages and tree-lined streets. It’s in solid stone walls and dilapidated shacks. It is in the bones of a ship under construction and in the hulk of a ship left to rot.

For the average resident of Mystic a century ago, these everyday scenes were barely noticed. But for the painters, most of whom came from elsewhere, they were the very essence of the place and worth painting on canvas. Decades later, we can see everything like them.

Two oil paintings, one by Nathaniel S. Little, the other by Carl Lawless, depict the same ordinary place, seen from the end of Orchard Lane. A few houses appear in both, and the scenes are beautiful in their contrasting approaches.

Little’s “Mystic in Winter” takes a low point of view and is draped in the season’s greyish hues. Lawless’ “Sunrise in Mystic” surveys the region from above, its morning clouds lit orange by the rising sun. Houses seem to exist in different spheres at once.

Seeing the same place depicted by two artists is a recurring theme, as colony members presumably shared picturesque views they discovered with their colleagues.

Another kind of contrast is pairing a painting with a modern photo of the same place. Ernest Harrison Barnes’ “The Shady Street” shows Pearl Street exactly a century ago. The houses remain intact, but in 1922 the street was covered with a canopy of trees which filtered the sunlight, occasionally admitting pommels to form patterns in the road. Today the trees are gone and with them part of the charm of the street.

Joseph Eliot Enneking’s ‘The Village Street’ shows a magical, impressionistic blur of autumn colors on the High Street. But in a photo from today, the view is of utility poles and wires criss-crossing the sky.

Sometimes the transformation of the past into the present is even more shocking than that. “From a New England Window” by Peter Marcus is a snowy landscape seen from a building at 61 West Main St. Thick brushstrokes produce a dreamy effect that softens and obscures detail. If this transports you to another world, you are sent back to this one when you read that “Mystic Pizza is now located to the right of this stage”.

About a quarter of the paintings come from the museum’s collection, and the rest belong to Jonathan Sproul, who grew up in Mystic but only started collecting art from his hometown 20 years ago, when he lived in Boston. Mystical paintings kept popping up at online auctions, they were affordable, “and it just snowballed from there,” he said.

Initially interested in the look of Mystic a century ago, Sproul has expanded his hobby to research the art colony and its painters. He has developed an expertise on the subject.

“Now I can recognize one of these paintings from a mile away,” he said.

The mystical colony flourished for years, attracting artists from New York and Boston, as well as a group who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Others were natives, such as George Victor Grinnell, who came from a family of local shipbuilders. Henry Ward Ranger, who had founded the Lyme Art Colony in 1899, joined the Mystic group in 1905, after Lyme had become “too crowded”.

The Mystic Art Association was established in 1913 and its first exhibition followed a year later. Shortly thereafter, the Hartford Courant called the area a “prime paint ground”, one of the best in New England.

Sproul researched the exhibit history of the Mystic and Lyme colonies, compiling voluminous information in two as yet unpublished books that he is still working on. He said the current exhibit differs from others that have featured mystical artists in that the theme shows recognizable locations.

A big part of the Mystic Colony’s appeal was Masons Island. One perspective that many artists chose was to look through the trees and vegetation towards the mainland. Grinnell’s “Down on Mason’s Island” is typical. With the mystical shoreline indistinct in the distance, the foreground is dominated by a stand of eerie-looking trees whose twisting trunks bend skyward until they reach crowns of semicircular leaves.

The overall impression of the show is rural and pastoral, with mostly landscapes. But two views of Masons Island serve as a reminder that industry was also part of the scene. Thomas Burnham Enders, the namesake of Enders Island, and George Albert Thompson describe a menhaden processing plant and a quarry respectively. Unlike most other paintings, they dwell on details of architecture and machinery.

If the mood of Masons Island’s landward sights is one of desire, then perhaps the object of that desire is Noank. Lawless’ portrait of a white seaside cottage shows no one, but its peaceful vibe is summed up in the title: “Contentment.”

In Noank, the influence of the sea is always close. John Havard Macpherson’s “Bait Shack” is a still life of red and white lobster buoys stacked against the wall of an old building.

Noank’s seafaring spirit offered many avenues of inspiration. William Bradford Green found it in the tilting masts of the Alice L. Pendleton, an abandoned wooden schooner that was a landmark for years. George Bertrand Mitchell saw it in the half-sunken hull of the Ella May, a fishing boat that also survived its time as a wreck.

Frederick K. Detwiller captured the beginning of a ship’s life in “Framing Up,” part of a series documenting Groton Iron Works, a World War I shipyard. It shows a U-shaped hull section put in place.

Sproul, who is now chairman of Lyman Allyn’s board, said the type of paint prevalent at Mystic has changed over the years. Rather than a particular style, the colony was driven by the natural beauty of the area, which perhaps even offered more than Old Lyme for the Lyme Colony. It was “kind of like a one-stop-shop for artists, really,” he said.

While the history of the Lyme Colony remains important, the Mystic Colony is less well known, said museum curator Tanya Pohrt. It has been overshadowed by tourism and other Mystic traditions, such as shipbuilding.

A collection of smaller paintings, which serves as an introduction to the exhibition, depicts a place that was a particularly popular subject. Noank’s North Wharf, also known as Potter’s Wharf, was a place of dilapidated structures and fishing gear that was immortalized on numerous canvases before being swept away by the 1938 hurricane.

We will never know how much art would have resulted had it survived. The good news is that much of what is depicted in this show is still here, retaining its power to inspire future generations.

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