An Admirable Note of Seclusion: The Garden of Clark Greenwood Voorhees

By Courtney A. Lynch

The gambrel-roof cottage, like so many of the old New England houses, is close to the street, but it is a few feet below the sidewalk level, and what with the draw wall, the hedge, and the slope of the grounds, there is an admirable note of seclusion.[1]

-H.S. Adams for Country Life in America, 1914

It was Clark Greenwood Voorhees’ Connecticut home that H.S. Adams recounted here for his April 1914 article entitled Lyme—A Country Life Community. The eighteenth-century Old Lyme house, which Voorhees had purchased for his family in 1903, was well-known and admired for the sprawling, well-maintained garden that Voorhees’ wife, Maud, cultivated. Through its beauty, vibrancy and inherent magnetism, the house and garden became an important painting subject not only for Voorhees, but for fellow members of the Old Lyme artist colony as well.

Voorhees, the colony’s founder, was a talented landscapist who melded Tonalism with Impressionism to extraordinary effect. While attending graduate school at Columbia University—where he became increasingly unfulfilled by the laboratory work associated with his chemistry degree—Voorhees enrolled in classes at the Art Students League and began devoting time to sketching out-of-doors. Several years later, in 1897, he moved to Paris in order to study art at the famed Académie Julian under J.P. Laurens and Benjamin Constant.

Voorhees first visited Old Lyme, Connecticut in 1893. Enamored with the town, he returned several times throughout the 1890s and was one of the very first of the Old Lyme artists to stay at the now-famous Florence Griswold House, which was ultimately to become the center of the Old Lyme colony’s artistic life. Following Voorhees’ purchase of his Old Lyme home, many other artists followed his example. The artistic community that sprouted up in Old Lyme would become what the American Art scholar William Gerdts has called, “the most famous Impressionist-oriented art colony in America.”[2] Voorhees, who was deeply involved in the community of Old Lyme, used the town as source material for many of his paintings.

Clark Greenwood Voorhees (1871-1933), Springtime, The Artist’s Home, Old Lyme, CT, Oil on canvas, 15 ½ x 19 ½ inches, Collection of Hawthorne Fine Art
Clark Greenwood Voorhees (1871-1933), Springtime, The Artist’s Home, Old Lyme, CT, Oil on canvas, 15 ½ x 19 ½ inches, Collection of Hawthorne Fine Art

Springtime, The Artist’s Home, Old Lyme, CT, from the collection of Hawthorne Fine Art, is one such painting—indeed, one of several—which depicts the artist’s home. Most striking these paintings is the vibrant, ample garden which dominates the foreground. Gardens of this type were made popular by the Colonial Revival movement, and the. Voorhees’ is an excellent example. These gardens were generally small, and lay close to the home. Stone or gravel walkways extended from a central path, raised planting beds were bordered with low-lying, colorful flowers, and mixtures of plants were distributed among neatly delineated planting beds. Many of these characteristics are visible in the Voorhees garden, which was undoubtedly a work of art in its own right.

Clark Greenwood Voorhees, My Garden, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches, Signed lower right, Collection of Michael W. Voorhees
Clark Greenwood Voorhees, My Garden, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches, Signed lower right, Collection of Michael W. Voorhees

Perhaps the most well-known of Voorhees garden paintings is one titled My Garden. The work, which has been described by Marshall N. Price as a, “literal explosion of colors,” in which his “use of an Impressionist touch is greatest,” is a testament to Voorhees’s talent as a painter. In the foreground, one of Voorhees children plays among the greenery while in the background the house sits peacefully among its polished shrubbery. The sweeping carpet of flowers is rendered with the swift, gestural, Impressionist style that demands removed viewing, yet executed with enough detail that the buds on the hollyhocks can be identified against the dark backdrop of foliage. Though aligned with the American Impressionists, Voorhees always retained a Tonalist sensibility when it came to light effects, which can be viewed here in the gentle treatment of highlight and shadow.

Matilda Browne, In Voorhees’ Garden, 1914, Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, Collection of the Florence Griswold Museum
Matilda Browne, In Voorhees’ Garden, 1914, Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, Collection of the Florence Griswold Museum

Voorhees was not the only artist to paint his garden. The American Impressionist Matilda Browne painted In Voorhees’ Garden, now in the collection of the Florence Griswold Museum, in 1914. Painted from a near-identical vantage point and in plein air style, Browne similarly chose to depict the garden with a child in the foreground, paused by a cluster of white buds and surrounded by an explosion of color and vibrancy. The middle ground—cast in the deep shadow of the hedges and trees—boldly frames the white house, set handsomely in the background. Rendered in bright, colorful tones with a deeply Impressionist sensibility, Browne’s painting is an homage to the levity of the Voorhees’ garden on a bright summer day.

Voorhees’ home and garden were undeniably a favorite subject, and an unequivocally perfect vehicle for the transmission of his distinctive, blended style. The repeated use of such a personal subject builds a fascinating narrative not only of his home’s changing landscape, but also Voorhees’ stylistic development over time. While My Garden represents a melded use of Tonalism and Impressionism, Springtime, The Artist’s Home, Old Lyme, CT delves more deeply into the latter. Delicate, gestural lines suggest detail in the flowering hedges against the side of the house while the thick, strong tones of the background foliage suggest breadth and movement. Though painted from a similar viewpoint as My Garden, the frame of Springtime is more constrained, more concerned with the planting bed immediately surrounding the house, drawing the viewer’s attention to the textural difference between the blooms’ capricious vibrancy and the house’s uniform exterior. Voorhees’ treatment of color and line in Springtime conveys his deep investment in the assimilation of the Impressionist style, as well as his experimentation with the full range of its capability.

Not only was the Voorhees’ garden an achievement in its own right, but it was a versatile and endlessly changing source of inspiration for its owner and his peers. The vast majority of Voorhees’ sensitively rendered images are concerned with conceptualizations of place, set in locations that were especially important to the artist and his family. Through these depictions, of which Springtime is only one of many, Voorhees effortlessly conveys his intimate, longtime affection for deeply personal locales such as Old Lyme, Bermuda and, most importantly, his own home.

Currently on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, PA is an exhibition entitled The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920, which focuses with artists’ captivation with gardens at the turn of the twentieth century—a thematic engagement similar to that of Clark Greenwood Voorhees.

[1]               H. S. Adams, “Lyme—A Country Life Community,” Country Life in America (April 1914), 92.

[2]               William H. Gerdts, American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), 221.

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