GREENWICH, Conn. ‒ Most people who have toured the beautiful and historic Bush-Holley House on Strickland Road leave with a better understanding of the vital role the site played in the development of the Cos Cob art colony and development of American Impressionist painting.
In particular, they are impressed with the manner in which the house and its surrounding landscape served as a classroom, workplace, source of inspiration and welcoming venue for the exchange of stimulating and experimental ideas. The variety of natural settings throughout Greenwich was a magnet for artists looking to observe, absorb and interpret the world around them.
Two recent developments at the Greenwich Historical Society offer the chance to further explore the importance of place in the working life of the artist. A new exhibition called "A Good Light, The Artist’s Studio in Cos Cob and Beyond," guest-curated by art historian (and past Historical Society chairman) Susan G. Larkin, examines the multifaceted concept of the artist’s studio.
As she notes in the exhibition catalog, “Over the centuries, the studio served various roles. Fundamentally a workshop, it also functioned as a living quarters, showplace, classroom and social setting.” The impressive range of paintings and etchings included in the exhibition vividly demonstrate this fact and offer the viewer a visual feast in an inviting and intimate gallery space.
This past summer, a dormer window was re-introduced to a room adjacent to Elmer MacRae’s studio in Bush-Holley House (it had been removed in the late 1950s as part of a colonial-era re-interpretation of the structure). The communicating doorway was also given a larger opening and the furnishing plan for the space refreshed, so that visitors to the house can now see the studio as it was used by MacRae and artist Childe Hassam in the early part of the last century.
Great efforts were made by Historical Society staff Michele Couture, Karen Frederick and consultant Kathleen Johnson to authentically turn back the clock in this section of the house to the art colony period. Historical documentation from the Archives, including letters and photographs from the Holley-MacRae Family Papers, assisted them in their efforts. The changes to this room alone are worth another visit to Bush-Holley House for anyone who hasn’t treated themselves to a tour in some time.
Two other homes that once included the studios of noted artists affiliated with the Cos Cob Art Colony (or working nearby) can still be found in Greenwich. Like Bush-Holley House, the Round Hill Road home of painter John Henry Twachtman served not only as a workspace, but as a rich source of artistic subject matter. The building and surrounding landscape appear in some of Twachtman’s most notable works. The home is now a private residence, and the owners still honor its historic legacy.
Leonard Ochtman spent over 30 years creating many of his most esteemed paintings in his home studio on Valley Road. The room is featured in a painting (titled "A Corner of the Studio") by his daughter, Dorothy Ochtman, that is part of the exhibition. Years later when this residence was offered for sale, a Realtor’s brochure noted, “The feature of the second floor is the spacious studio with high vaulted ceiling, amply lighted from the north … a wing of the studio may be curtained off to provide a separate working space, with adequate lighting.”
It’s clear that Mr. Ochtman found in his home a comfortable and productive place to enjoy and express the seasonal changes to the gorgeous Mianus River views outside his windows.
The exhibition "A Good Light, The Artist’s Studio in Cos Cob and Beyond" runs at the Greenwich Historical Society’s Storehouse Gallery until Jan. 6.
Christopher Shields is the archivist at the Greenwich Historical Society, 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, Conn.