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.