"I therefore rest satisfied, and thank God that my lot is to be an American farmer" –J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782).
Wilson Henry Irvine was a leading figure among the second-generation Old Lyme Art Colony artists. Born in Byron, Illinois near Rockford, just a few miles south of the Wisconsin border, Irvine likely enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1895, though possibly as early as 1891 (Spencer, 13). Early employment with the Chicago Portrait Company, an image mill that churned out cheap likenesses for the middle class, led to more serious endeavors. “By 1900 he was beginning to exhibit landscapes in group shows at The Art Institute of Chicago and elsewhere in the area” (Spencer 15).
Having visited New England as early as 1905, Irvine first came to the Old Lyme area about 1914 and settled there permanently two years later. According to Spencer, Irvine may have arrived in Old Lyme via his friendship with the artists Robert and Bessie Pottor Vonnoh. Bessie Potter Vonnoh had studied with Loredo Taft in Chicago, whose studio once hosted Chicago’s Palette and Chisel Club, of which Irvine was a founding member. The Vonnohs had taken a cottage in the Hamburg area of Lyme (Spencer 23). In 1916, Irvine purchased Brooksound, a whitewashed colonial just up Sterling City Road from Hamburg Cove.
In 1921, Irvine won the W. S. Eaton purchase prize at the Lyme Art Association’s annual exhibition and he showed with the group regularly for the remainder of his career. Irvine’s Lyme output is often characterized by wide, broken brushstrokes and a general sensitivity to atmosphere and light. In November, Lyme, this sensitivity is demonstrated in the heavy clouds amply tinged with pink—the unique “Lyme light” associated with the region. The blue slip of water in the middle distance, the Connecticut River, lends perspective, while the bright band of lower sky leavens the mood.
As one critic wrote, quoted by Cheryl Gordon, “Mr. Irvine neither exploits nor unduly extols his beloved Connecticut, but keeps turning her about so we can see her from all angles and cordially admires her rustic, half-cultivated loveliness. He sees a traditional beauty in the rock ledges of New England” (Gordon 13). Indeed, the considerable rock in the foreground suggests such timelessness—among the barren trees, under a crisp sky, autumn in New England endures.
Cheryl Cibulka Gordon, Explorations of an American Impressionist: the Art of Wilson Irvine (1869-1936), exhib. cat. (Washington: Adams Davidson, 1990).
Harold Spencer, Wilson Henry Irvine and the Poetry of Light, exhib. cat. (Old Lyme: Florence Griswold Museum, 1998).