Jennie Montague Griswold (American, 1858-1941) painter & elocutionist primarily known for her landscape paintings in oil and watercolor, was born in Connecticut on May 21, 1858 to capitalist and merchant William Chase “Bill” Griswold (1821-1900), known for building “Griswold Block” in Salem, OR in 1856 (also known as “Griswold's Opera House”, and later the “Murphy Block”), and mother Jane O. Griswold (née Holcomb, 1829-), and Jennie had two siblings, an older sister who died as an infant Ada Griswold (Jan. 1856-July 26, 1856) and a younger brother, a civil engineer William Tudor Griswold (1859-1931). Some sources state Jennie’s birthdate as 1842, which is incorrect for this artist. Her parents were married on January 25, 1854 in Hartford, CT by Rev. T.C. Brownell, and they moved from Connecticut to Salem Oregon where W.C. Griswold had already been engaged in the mercantile business as early as 1852.
Around 1860, after the birth of their son William, Mr. Griswold’s wife returned to the east to live in New York, and W.C. Griswold soon followed where he engaged in the hat and cap business in New York, as well as in mercantile ventures in Galveston, TX and Memphis, TN until 1867. From his numerous business and venture properties, as well as stock and bonds, W.C. Griswold had enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle through the mid 1860’s, but after the Civil War had taken its toll on the nation, Griswold’s businesses had started to fail and he became ‘financially embarrassed’. Around 1865, it appears that he and his wife had divorced and it was stated that he had given her a third of his fortune in stocks and bonds with an ‘on par’ value of $50,000 (about $710,000 in today’s money). By 1867, he had began borrowing money frequently from his ex-wife during this time to help pay off creditors and his debts to satisfy his ‘embarrassments’, but soon had to file for bankruptcy in 1868 in New York. By mid November 1869, Griswold was granted the bankruptcy and he was able to settle his debts and pay off creditors. During this period, W.C. Griswold had still maintained property in Salem, OR and had been collecting rents, and was later sued for ‘Fraudulent Conveyance’ involving his wife Jane and other persons to help protect the property from creditors back in New York.
Jennie was active as a painter and elocutionist, residing in places such as Connecticut, Oregon, California, Washington, DC, and New York. By 1897, Jennie maintained an art studio in the Marquam Building in Portland, OR. She exhibited a watercolor “Labor Day in Brittany (France)” under the auspices of the San Francisco Art Association at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in November, 1901. From c1902-1904, she was known to have been a resident of Los Angeles, CA and exhibited artwork under the auspices of the Ruskin Art Club, Los Angeles, CA (from 1902-04), and where she enjoyed painting scenes of the San Gabriel Mountains. She was also an accomplished elocutionist of rare talent and her recitals of literary readings were characterized in the manner which ranged from “grave to gay, from comedy to tragedy”. In addition, she had been the leading lady in many Shakespeare plays as a member of the Shakespearian Dramatic Club in Paris, France in the late 1890’s. Those who could remember her rendition of “Curfew shall not ring tonight!” remembered it with a thrill and she also gave recitals in locations such as; London, New York, Middleboro, Connecticut (1897), The Woodmen Circle at Fraternity Hall (Dalles, OR, Jan. 8, 1896 & Dec. 31, 1896), and the Vogt Opera House in Dalles, OR (Monday, January 25, 1897).
From c1904-1914, she had been residing in Washington, DC and was a member of the Washington Society of Artists. One interesting and historic story of Jennie as told by C.B. “Cy” Woodworth of Portland recalled that she had “…heard of Multnomah Falls and went to see them. It was quite a trip. The steamer landed about half a mile away, a trail led through the brush and a swamp had to be crossed. It so appealed to her artistic nature that she had her father buy the falls. She actually had a vested title to these falls. She lost it by default for taxes but the title was so clouded when the city of Portland sought to buy them a short time ago , that it was necessary to get a quit-claim deed from Jennie Griswold to clear the title.” A short time before those proceedings, Jennie had been declared mentally incompetent and was placed in a sanitarium in Hartford, CT, until she regained her health and could appear on her own behalf. She owned almost 162 acres of land surrounding the Falls and intended to make the Multnomah Falls a local public park, but in the end she lost the property and was paid the sum of $5250- (about $125,500- in today’s dollar). Thankfully, the city went ahead and ended up making it a public park and is currently one of Oregon’s most beloved natural attractions.
Sometime after 1915, Jennie was known to reside in New York City, and was known to exhibit at the National Academy. She died in Manhattan, New York on May 8, 1941 at the age of 82 and is buried in the family plot in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.
(Written & compiled by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, East Aurora, NY, 02/09/17 meibohmfinearts.com.)