Thomas Wilmer Dewing

American, 1851 - 1938
Thomas Wilmer Dewing, a native of Boston, studied successively in Paris and Munich from 1876 to 1879. On his return to America he joined the newly organized Society of American Painters and promptly immersed himself in New York's cultural scene, which was centered in the salon of Richard Watson Gilder. Gilder was editor of The Century magazine and aesthetic arbiter to a circle of prominent artists, writers, musicians and millionaires—tastemakers to the Gilded Age. At Gilder's, Dewing met a highly congenial bon vivant in the person of architect Stanford White, who became his cohort about town and resident frame maker. "Tommy" and "Stanny" were inseparable until White's tragic death in 1905.

It was also at Gilder's salon that Dewing met the talented artist Maria Oakey (1845–1927), who would become his wife and a significant influence on his work. Miss Oakey, who had studied with John La Farge, encouraged Dewing to move from his hard-edged figurative style toward the softer, tonalist expression that characterized his work thereafter.

From 1890, Dewing concentrated his efforts on idealized depictions of elegant, attenuated young women, singly or in small groups, idling in fresh green fields. Most of these "decorations," as he called them, were painted during the Dewings' residence in Cornish, New Hampshire. There during the summer holidays they enjoyed the lively company of White, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, George de Forest Brush, the young Maxfield Parrish, and other urban expatriates.

It was also during this period that Ms. Oakey-Dewing shifted her attention from figurative studies to flower arrangements—close-up, soft-focus views, cropped to suggest continuation into exterior space. On at least one occasion, she contributed the floral elements to a major work of her husband.

In 1897, Dewing joined the Ten American Painters, defectors from the Society of American Painters who now sought more advantageous conditions for the exhibition of their work. For twenty years this group annually exhibited their work.

From about 1905, Dewing shifted his attention from exterior to interior settings for his work. The interiors are softly painted, tonally uniform, generalized and ambiguous; the figures are presented alone or in pairs, prominently placed in shallow space. But, however close-up, they remain essentially the same elegant, detached creatures, elusive, idealized, and contemplative. As one critic observed, "the Dewing type was intellectual enough to be worthy of Boston; aristocratic enough to be worthy of Philadelphia; well enough dressed to be a New Yorker, but seldom pretty enough to evoke the thought of Baltimore"—but always genteel enough to insulate the viewer from disturbing thoughts of the tumultuous changes that were taking place in the real world of commerce and industry.

Dewing was singularly fortunate in having a pair of wealthy patrons who were devoted to his work. The New York insurance magnate John Gellatly was convinced that Dewing was "the greatest living painter" and consequently acquired thirty-one of his works, most of which were bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institution. The Detroit businessman and railroad-car manufacturer Charles Lang Freer was sufficiently enamoured of Dewing's "decorations" to have purchased twenty-seven of them for incorporation in his eponymous gallery of art in Washington, D.C. Though their subject matter no longer fulfills its original inspirational intent, the rich painterly skills of the artist continue to delight the eye.
Thomas Dewing was born in 1851. He apprenticed in a lithography shop before receiving formal art training in Boston in 1865 and Academie Julian in 1876-77. By 1880, Dewing established a studio in New York City and married the artist Maria Oakey. Together they painted in the East Hamptons, while Dewing taught at the Art Student League. Dewing is best known for his elegant, poetic women seemingly introspective in ethereal atmospheres. He used minimal color and is sometimes referred to as a Tonalist. In 1900, Dewing created a public mural in Detroit. He died in 1938.

Biography courtesy of The Caldwell Gallery,
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