Up until the mid-1800s, Greenwich was a farming and fishing community. Early on residents decided to protect its suburban nature from the over-development of nearby urban communities. Once William "Boss"Tweed started vacationing here in the summer, and the railroad opened up convenient service to and from New York City, Greenwich became a summer destination for many people. Yet, Greenwich was still able to hold onto its maritime and agricultural atmosphere.
To fully understand the Cos Cob Art Colony, we must look at what was happening in art in the rest of the world. Impressionism was the new style taking Paris by storm. Impressionist painters used small, thin, visible strokes and put emphasis on light to communicate the passage of time. Many American artists had spent time in Paris, and were bringing this new artistic style to the United States. Impressionism was a new style of painting, using color and light. Painters of this style were considered "en plein air" or "open air" artists, since they painted outside. Natural light was preferable. Art colonies sprung up in Europe and some Americans lived in them for a while. It was believed that a group of artists working together could inspire each other's creativity. In the United States, some art colonies were deliberately formed by businessmen, who were more interested in increasing property values than art! Others evolved naturally such as Monhegan Isle ME, Gloucester MA, Old Lyme and Cos Cob.
The stage was set in 1873 when an Edward Holley built a boarding house on Stanwich Road. It was known as "Holly Farm". In 1878, two prominent artists from New York - John H. Twatchman and J. Alden Weir - traveled to Holly Farm for the summer. Edward Holley rented a house in Cos Cob near the Lower Landing, and started preparing it for summer boarders. In 1884, he was able to buy this house. Twatchman and Weir are two of the many boarders who stayed there. This is what we know today as the Bush-Holley House.
As word spread about the art colony, Cos Cob became a favorite summer place for a variety of writers, editors, journalists and other artists. The New England culture appealed to many of them. There was also varied scenery; tidal marshes, harbors, winding rivers, rocky pastures, back country roads and farms. In effect, the landscape had not been spoiled. Artists found enough subject matter to keep them going for a long time. The Holley House - as it was called - was an affordable gathering place. (By the way, today you can still see some Colonial period houses along Strickland Road.)
Over time, Cos Cob became a Bohemian enclave. Its visitors included Willa Cather, Irving Bacheller, illustrator Rose O'Neill, playwright Kate Jordan, editor Viola Roseboro and Japanese artist Genjiro Yeto. Investigative reporter Lincoln Steffens even spent time there. He used to engage in political discussions with Twatchman. Steffens even included a chapter on the Art Colony in his autobiography. Natural artist Georgia O'Keefe is said to have painted "Skunk Cabbage" after visiting Greenwich. Cos Cob became known for its avante-garde art, its progressive politics and its degree of sexual freedom.
Although Twatchman and Weir bought their own houses, they continued to teach summers at the Holley House. Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson and Leonard Ochtman also painted at the Cos Cob Art Colony. Some even traveled to the other art colonies in the area. There is no doubt that each influenced the other. In fact, John Twatchman was amazed to see similarities in the art work at various art exhibits !
After many of the principals in the Holley family passed away, The Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich bought the Holley House in 1957. They changed the name to the Bush-Holley House. Today, you can still see painters occasionally set up around the Lower Landing and Bush-Holley House with their easels. The museum even offers painting classes from time to time. There are still some natural vistas in the area despite the encroaching I-95. The Mianus River and Cos Cob Harbor are right across the street. And the Mill Pond lies just to the North. Cos Cob is still indeed a haven for painters of natural panoramas.
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