Walter Griffin (1861-1935)

Walter Griffin (1861-1935)

His feeling was all for breadth, for generalization, for an effect resembling in its muted richness that of some old tapestry. 

- Royal Cortissoz, New York Herald Tribune, 1936

Born in Portland, Maine, in 1861, Walter Griffin was the son of a painter and woodcarver who, fortunately, supported his interests in fine art at an early age. Young Griffin accompanied his father on painting trips throughout Maine, later winning scholarships to study at the Boston Museum School and the National Academy of Design. To supplement his income during the four years he spent in New York, Griffin taught at the Society of Ethical Culture for Dr. Felix Adler, who encouraged the young artist to go abroad to Paris, where he studied at the Colarossi Academy under Raphael Collin and at the École des Beaux-Arts under Jean Paul Laurens. He painted in Brittany from 1890 to 1897, embracing a more impressionistic style, before returning to the United States and setting up a studio in Hartford, Connecticut. There he taught at the Connecticut League of Art Students and the Art Society of Hartford (which later became the Hartford Art School), and established a summer school in Quebec, Canada, by 1898. 

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Griffin became active in the Old Lyme artists’ colony around 1905, forming lasting friendships and exhibiting with fellow painters Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Ernest Lawson and John Henry Twachtman.  He began taking part in annual shows at the Pennsylvania Academy and the National Academy, which elected Griffin an Associate in 1912, before traveling abroad again in 1908, with stays in Norway, Paris and Boigneville, a village on the outskirts of the capital, where he adopted a technique of working with his palette knife to achieve a thicker impasto. He worked in Venice in 1913 and later along the Breton coast before the impact of World War I forced him to return to the States by 1915.  By 1917, Griffin had settled back in Maine and eventually purchased a home in Stroudwater, near his native Portland. The orchards, farms, mills, country churches and wooden bridges of the region offered charming subjects for him, and these Maine scenes were revered for their light effects and unique color harmonies applied with the artist’s characteristic impasto.

Griffin was made a full member of the National Academy in 1922 and in the same year returned to France, where he stayed for the remainder of his life, with an occasional trip home with paintings for exhibition. He was the recipient of tremendous critical acclaim and numerous awards, and exhibited with Farargil Galleries and Frank Rehn Galleries in New York, often selling as many as fifteen works at one show, with private collectors and museum institutions acquiring his oils and drawings. An undated review of a Frank Rehn exhibition praised his unique manner of working: “There is exquisite beauty in the paint itself, quite apart from the subject depicted. One notes a particular opalescence in every particle of the crumbly surface, which is so loaded that the pictures are virtually bas-reliefs in color. When one stands a yard away, they become marvelously true to nature, exhaling the very breath of outdoors.”[1]

While his innovative technique for painting in oils brought him rave reviews, Griffin was equally talented with pastels and dry brush watercolors. Commended by Philip Hale for their ability to capture “the brilliant, confused, vibrating charm of nature in sunlight,”[2] Griffin’s works on paper were intimate, poetic scenes rendered with flowing brushwork, expert draftsmanship and harmonious color.  They were exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy’s watercolor exhibitions and with New York’s Montross Gallery and Bauer-Folsom Galleries, and he was a member of the New York Water Color Club and the American Water Color Society.

Griffin returned to America in 1933 when his health began to fail, and despite his desire to return to France after he recovered, Griffin died in Portland in May 1935. His friend Hassam would pass away just three months later and in 1936, the National Academy held a joint memorial exhibition of their work. Griffin’s paintings were stored away for decades before they were brought to light in a 1975 exhibition at Vose Galleries. Today his work can be found in numerous private and museum collections, including the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Art.

References: See Who Was Who in American Art (1999); F. Newlin Price, Walter Griffin, (NY: Ferargil Galleries, New York); Walter Griffin (Vose Galleries, 1975); “The Life and Work of Walter Griffin 1861-1935,” by Rupert Lovejoy, American Art Review, September-October 1975, pp. 92-107.

[1] Undated New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser article, March 11 (no year), written by H. C. Nelson.

[2] New York Times, September 3, 1908

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