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May 30, 2007

What's Dewing in Washington

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

You can hardly find his paintings anywhere else, but they're thick as lobbyists in Washington, DC. That was the impression I got last week during my mad dash through our capitol's museums and galleries.

I'm referring to Thomas Wilmer Dewing, of course.

His work can be seen in the Freer Gallery, tucked away amidst all its Asian art next to James McNeill Whistler's famous Peacock Room. Presumably the Dewings here are from Charles Lang Freer's collection, Freer being Dewing's major patron.

Another collector who bought a lot of Dewing's paintings was John Gellatly, and his collection forms the basis for a room full of them I saw in the Smithsonian American Art Museum a few blocks north of the Mall in the old downtown area.

The following biographical sketch is based on Web material found here, here and here.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938) was born in the Boston area and, despite family financial problems, was able to study at Paris' favorite art school for Americans, the Académie Julian (under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebre) in 1876-77. He returned to Boston, but moved to New York in 1880 where he married painter Maria Richards Oakey (1845-1927, a student of John LaFarge) whose connections helped him gain entry to its artistic world. One of his pals was architect Stanford White.

The Dewings and their daughter went to France in 1895, spending time in Paris and Claude Monet's haunt, Giverny (the town was home to a number of American artists around the turn of the century). But the pull of America and the summer art colony in Cornish, NH was too strong for them to stay long in France.

He was 62 when the famous Armory Show introduced modernism to America. But, unlike many younger artists, he refused to be seduced by the movement even though his paintings became less marketable during the remaining 25 years of his life.

According to Susan A. Hobbs, in the second reference link above, Dewing was a physically large man with a prickly personality. Yet his favorite subject matter was wispy women, often in psychologically ambiguous poses that give a slight tension to what he portrayed. At the hight of his Tonalist period, he referred to his works as simply "decorations."

Perhaps some critics might agree. Nevertheless, these paintings can fascinate. Would I buy one if it were on the market and I had the money? You bet.

I'll let you judge for yourself.


Photo of Thomas Wilmer Dewing

After Sunset - 1892

In the Garden - 1892-94

Sylvan Sounds - 1896-97

Young Girl Seated - 1896

A Reading - 1897

Lady in White - 1910

The Necklace - 1907

An Artist - 1916

Why do I like Dewing's paintings? Firstly, because they are well-done, and I'm a pushover for technical expertise as most of you know by now. And I admit to liking pretty women, his main subject. Plus, I find his use of color both interesting and satisfying. Finally, due to the psychological overtones Dewing introduces, his paintings are not simply "pretty," as they otherwise might have been.

Taking his appeal from another angle, I think he paints subjects of familiarity and interest to humans. We can relate to or puzzle over his work. This is more than can be said for most abstract or, especially, contemporary paintings with all their edginess, cartoonishness and faux-intellectual conceptualism.



posted by Donald at May 30, 2007


I like them also, especially After Sunset & In the Garden.

Posted by: April on May 31, 2007 7:13 AM

As the artist himself said: simply "decorations." Much as I sympathize with you ideologically, these paintings are a species of fashion art, designed to show awareness of the latest silhouette, hairstyle, female body type, and brush stroke. When you consider the high standards of academic draftsmanship at the time, the figure drawing is pretty feeble. I do, however, appreciate having these very-much-of-their-period works brought to our attention, as I have the other little-known realists you have blogged.

Posted by: Faze on May 31, 2007 8:51 AM

Faze -- I should have mentioned in the posting that these internet-based pictures don't convey well the visual impact of the original paintings. Lots of subtle stuff going on with the brushwork & color. Printed reproductions do a better job, but one still has to see the real thing.

I'm not claiming Dewing produced great art: sometimes a consensus on that can take a couple hundred years (think Vermeer). I happen to like his stuff. So did Freer, who devoted a lot of his life to art and was a big Whistler fan and patron.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 31, 2007 9:03 AM

Donald, you call them pretty? They all look sick to me, probably tuberculosis or mulnutrition. Or they all are ballet dancers.

They are too skinny for their skirts. Their cheakbones and clavicles are protruding dangerously, their poses repeat those of the wilting flower stems in the vases.

Or yeas, the flowers: why did the artist hated the flowers so much?

Posted by: Tatyana on May 31, 2007 9:14 AM

In my opinion, an example of representational painting completely devoid of feeling.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 31, 2007 10:13 AM

I think "Young Girl Seated" and "The Necklace" are interesting. I seem to have such a visceral reaction to paintings---I "like them", want to look at them, feel soothed or excited or "made happy" by them, or I don't. I guess I don't know enough about technique, or composition, to discuss it in official or historical terms. I'm like Hugo Black---I know it when I see it. While I respect the education and knowledge of many Blowhards about the specifics of painting, it isn't something I am drawn to, I guess. Something can be an important historical school, and after awhile, for me, it's like---who cares? I can't stand the paintings themselves! It's like MBlowhard's feelings about "official movie lists"---and then what most people really like. But I must admit, it is confusing to me how someone could enjoy Degas' ballet pictures and hate these.

Posted by: annette on May 31, 2007 11:38 AM

I love Dewing! I don't know how some of you can overlook the "aesthetic" tone of his paintings. I mean, you like it or you don't, but there it is: they're American attempts at Franco-Asian, design-y, 2D/3D mood pieces, and not so different than, say, Frank Lloyd Wright's houses -- they're out of that same turn-of-the-century mindset, when a lot of Americans discovered art, travel, sex, and philosophy, and tried to come up with an American response to it. Plus I like the combo of earnestness and sophistication, of clunkiness and elegance -- it's so American, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 31, 2007 11:54 AM

Nice paintings.

I generally subscribe to the idea that the major reason to involve yourself with the arts is to confront greatness, to measure ourselves and others against the very best that human beings are capable of. But, lets face it, one just can't keep that kind of thing up all the time. One needs some rest. And so we often turn to minor art, or at least some forms of minor art, for access to real but less strenuous pleasures. Some of my most cherished moments come from "minors" like Dewing. That doesn't mean that we should start making a case for their greatness, but we shouldn't entirely deprecate the pleasure they bring either.

BTW I particularly like Young Girl Seated.

Posted by: Thursday on May 31, 2007 5:00 PM

Bodiless bodies.

Posted by: ricpic on May 31, 2007 6:22 PM

I came across that Dewing room in the Smithsonian a few months ago, and liked many of the works displayed. (I'd never heard of him, either). But that whole area of the American Art Museum was a favorite of mine. Something about that pre-WWI period is fascinating, both in Europe and America, which makes me very sad to think about what was lost during that first, fatal disaster of the 20th century.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 31, 2007 9:09 PM

The women in the paintings remind me of the ones in Klimt's artwork. Both artists were apparently infatuated with listless thin women. However, the difference occurs with the plainer surface background in the Dewing paintings. It doesn't immediately hit the eye; the work becomes more subtle in the process. At the same time, I miss the art deco look. These ladies look lost.

Posted by: David Brown on June 1, 2007 2:49 AM

I'm not expert, but I'm with you in regards to his technique (perspective, color, anatomy). However, his choice of subject matter must have been considered cliche even by 19th century standards. I believe he would be better know in art history if he had found his own niche in that regard.

Posted by: mr. closets on June 1, 2007 10:39 AM

Funny - I noted to myself that the worst of the bunch is the Seated Girl. The way she slumped on her a sack of bleached rice.

The Lady in White is the best - not a lifeless manekin, a person with dignity and sense.
A Reading is not too bad - I like the color-coordination and elegant scarcity of interior.

They all look nothing like Klimt's women! Are you blind?

Posted by: Tat on June 2, 2007 9:26 AM

They merely reminded me of Klimts tall thin women. Don't you make associations when looking at artwork? Besides, I said there is a world of difference between the two artists. I was trying to show that there was "scarcity of interior" in the Dewing paintings.

Posted by: David Brown on June 2, 2007 10:25 AM

There is something 'arty' about them. They remind me vaguely of Monet but that's probably just my unschooled eye not having seen enough impressionists.

Franco-Asian? Are you referring to French responses to Asian culture, or to cultural elements present in both France and China/Japan?

Posted by: SFG on June 4, 2007 2:41 PM

I like the Dewing gauzy paintings of wraiths and have been thinking about their cultural context. Before WWI upper class women had a lot of time on their hands. That was lucky, since their main job was to look a certain way while other women with more muscle and grit did the actual work of the household. These women in the paintings spent their days strapped into corsets that deformed them as surely as bound feet captured Chinese women. They could hardly breathe -- there was barely room for their hearts to beat.

But the point of their existence was to produce children in as great numbers as possible, though pregnancies could quite possibly kill them and the children also were vulnerable to many diseases. Progeny were a form of capital, or at least a way to preserve it by passing it on through the male heirs.

Possibly, romanticism about "angels" and "bright spirits" and "loving saints" became part of a memorialization of the wives who died in childhood as well as a kind of reward for those wives still facing bloody, painful, and possibly deadly pregnancy. There is a line in the Helen Mirren movie about Eliz I in which her not-quite-lover points out, "You must not have a child, because the country cannot risk losing its queen."

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 5, 2007 6:32 PM

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