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Overview

Completed during his second of three summers at the burgeoning artists' colony in picturesque Old Lyme, Connecticut, May Night is Willard Metcalf's homage to the creative ferment he experienced there and to its host, Florence Griswold. The focus of this moonlit nocturne is the late-Georgian-style home of Miss Florence, as she was known, the last surviving member of a prominent local shipbuilding family. Forced to take in boarders to survive financially, Miss Florence welcomed several landscape painters to her home, including Childe Hassam.

Metcalf studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and later in Paris at the Académie Julian, where he frequented French artist colonies, including Giverny where he visited Claude Monet. There, Metcalf's exposure to French Impressionism and the development of his interests in botany and ornithology predisposed him to accept invitations from Miss Florence and his old friend Hassam to visit Old Lyme. Apparently thrilled with the natural beauty, artistic camaraderie, and opportunities to paint outdoors, Metcalf enjoyed a productive first summer in Old Lyme in 1905. He likely conceived May Night before returning the following May, and the ambitious canvas apparently occupied him through the following autumn. His work was aided by inclement weather early that summer; as Hassam wrote to his fellow painter J. Alden Weir, "Metty [Metcalf] is working hard at a moonlight. We are all doing moonlights. The weather has been so bad that we have been forced to it."

May Night shows an ethereally dressed figure that surely represents Miss Florence, for whom Metcalf painted the canvas, crossing the shadow-strewn lawn toward a seated companion. Set beneath a canopy of stars, lush trees frame the scene; the triangular shapes of the dogwood tree, and the white horse-chestnut blossoms echo those of the women's pale gowns. Metcalf enhanced his painted tribute to his host in several ways. He improved on the somewhat dilapidated appearance of the mansion and grounds and rendered the house as otherworldly and nearly templelike, perhaps in reference to its nickname, Holy House. An off-center perspective and the exaggerated height of the Ionic columns emphasize the home's portico (the porch at the entrance), the most classical feature of the house. The only reminder of modern life Metcalf chose to include is the glowing yellow light seen in the doorway and the windows on the left, suggesting lamplight.

Miss Florence was thrilled with Metcalf's painting, saying it "was the best thing he had ever done." When the artist offered her May Night in exchange for room and board, however, she refused to accept it, instead encouraging him to exhibit the work in New York, where it went on to receive critical acclaim. Metcalf's work also inspired other American artists to paint moonlight views, which became something of a trademark in Old Lyme.

Inscription

lower left: W. L. METCALF '06

Provenance

The artist [1858-1925]; purchased February 1907 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1906
Exhibition of Landscape by Willard L. Metcalf, St. Botolph Club, Boston, 9 - 29 November 1906, no. 14.
1907
Annual Exhibition of the Ten, Montross Galleries, New York, May - April 1907.
1907
First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 7 February - 9 March 1907, no. 166.
1908
103rd Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 20 January - 29 February 1908, no. 374.
1908
Third Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings by American Artists, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, 30 April - 30 August 1908, no. 90.
1908
Third Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings by American Artists, Saint Louis Museum of Fine Arts, 15 September - 1 November 1908, no. 91.
1925
Memorial Exhibition, Milch Galleries, New York, December 1925.
1925
Paintings by Willard L. Metcalf, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 3 January - 1 February 1925, no. 14.
1940
Survey of American Painting, Carnegie institute, Pittsburgh, 24 October - 15 December 1940, no. 243.
1957
Fifty Years at the Corcoran, Frye Museum, Seattle; University Museum, Arizona State College, Tempe; Quincy Art Club, (Illinois); J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville; Service League of Port Arthur, Texas; Winston-Salem Public Library (North Carolina); Museum of Fine Arts, Little Rock, Arkansas; Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist Univserity, Dallas; Miama Beach Art Center; Kent State University Museum, Ohio; Davenport Municipal Art Gallery, 1957-1958, no cat.
1957
Twenty-fifth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings (Historical Section) Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Toledo Museum of Art, 1957, no. 1.
1963
American Impressionists: Two Generations, Fort Lauderdale Art Center; Memphis Brooks Memorial Art Gallery; Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, Florida; Delaware Art Center, Wilmington; Michigan State University, East Lansing; Evansville Public Museum (Ohio); Roanoke Fine Arts Center (Virginia); Vancouver Art Gallery; Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, Canada; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario; Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; Saint John's, Newfoundland, Canada; London Public Library and Art Museum {Ontario); Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British Columbia, 1963-1965, no. 20.
1966
Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
1966
The Art Colony at Old Lyme: 1900-1935, Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, Connecticut, 1966, no. 73.
1976
Willard L. Metcalf Retrospective, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga, 1976-1977, no. 20.
1979
The American Renaissance, 1876-1917, Brooklyn Museum; National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington; M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; Denver Art Museum, 1979-1980, no. 216 (shown only in Brooklyn and Washington).
1996
Echoes and Late Shadows: The Larger World of Southern Impressionism, Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, 1996, unnumbered checklist.
1998
Forty-Fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907-1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998, unnumbered checklist.
1999
American Impressionism: Selections from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Strathmore Hall Arts Center, North Bethesda, Maryland, 1999, unnumbered checklist.
1999
Colonies of American Impressionism: Cos Cob, Old Lyme, Shinncock and Laguna Beach, Laguna Art Museum, 1999, no. 40.
2003
The Impressionist Tradition in America, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003, unpublished checklist.
2005
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 63.
2005
May Night: Willard Metcalf at Old Lyme, Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, 2005, no. 6.
2008
The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
2009
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
2013
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
Bibliography
2011
Cash, Sarah. "Willard Leroy Metcalf, May Night." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 34, 192-193, 275-276, repro.