28 February 2014

The Enigmatic Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Lady With a Mask, 1911, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

My decorations belong to the poetic and imaginative world where a few choice spirits live.” - Thomas Wilmer Dewing, from a letter to Charles Lang Freer dated February 16, 1901.

Dewing also said that, for real beauty, he needed to introduce a "sour note" into his compositions and In Lady With a Mask we see two types that he used often.  The mask, at first glance,  resembles a Japanese theatrical mask; on closer examination it suggests the style of the itinerant commedia dell arte players.  In a 17th century Netherlandish vanitas painting, the head was a skull symbolizing the transience of earthly pursuits but that was not Dewing's view of life's meanings, however much his contemporaries saw echoes of the preternatural light, that "envelope of quiet air" by which recognize Vermeer's paintings. Consider the woman, holding the mask turned slightly away from us, her gaze turned obliquely toward the viewer at the same time that her body turns slightly away from us.  All in all, nothing is exactly conventional in a Dewing picture, just as the actress Gertrude Chatfield who is the model here was a striking presence though not conventionally beautiful. 
 (The Recitation, 1890, Detroit Institute of Art, from the collection of Charles Lang  Freer).

The afterlife of Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938) has been unremarkable for decades but just recently I thought about the artist again.   Last year as the finances of the city of Detroit unraveled, bankruptcy advocates demanded the unthinkable: that the collection of the municipally owned Detroit Institute of Art be appraised for possible sale and disbursement.  Then, just last week another potential calamity threatened as the financially troubled Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. announced that it must merge with  the National Gallery of Art.  Dewing, who in life had been so fortunate in his patrons, was once again at artist at risk of losing his place in a museum.  And his major patron, Charles Lang Freer, had intimate connections with both cities. (After Sunset, 1892, Freer gallery)

Freer (1854-1919), a New Yorker who made his fortune in  railroad car manufacturing, moved to Detroit in 1880 and  ten years later he decided to build a house there.  In 1892, he commissioned Dewing and Dwight William Tryon to design the decorations for his Ferry Street residence. So pleased was Freer with the results that more commissions followed.   A complementary pair of paintings, After Sunset (1893)and Before Sunrise (c.1894)   pleased Freer greatly but the artist knew that his “decorations” as he called them, designed for specific architectural settings did not make a vivid impression on the public when they were loaned for exhibition. The women could be figures on an antique frieze, frozen in psychological isolation.  It may have been Dewing's emphasis on formal aesthetics at the expense of incidental symbolism; nevertheless the artist insisted that such works were “above the heads of the public.”  The soft tones of green, white, and mauve dlo resemble the faded colors of Renaissance frescoes, the gowned figires are more precisely delineated than the freely painted amorphous backgrounds.

The industrialist and the artist had this in common: both had suffered deprivation in childhood.  Freer's mother died when he was fourteen and his father worked in a cement factory.  Even in his late twenties, Dewing had to share a flat with his mother, sister, and brother, as he scraped together money for courses at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts School.  Like Winslow Homer before him, Dewing had begun working as a  lithographer’s apprentice.   

Another point of simpatico between Freer and Dewing was reticence.  In Freer, this may have resulted from his relationships with other men or from relationships with women (he never married).  In any case, he died after suffering for several years from syphilis.  Dewing, the handsome and elegant sensualist had, as we know, a good deal about which to be circumspect.

Moving to New York City in 1880 , Dewing took a bedroom-studio in the auspiciously named Rembrandt Building.  There he met Tryon and, more importanly, Maria Richards Oakey, a successful artist who had studied with two illustrious teachers, John La Farge and William Morris Hunt.  The couple married after a six moth courtship and proceeded to  execute several joint paintings, including The Days and Hymen.  With his usual shrewdness, the writer Sadakichi Hartmann speculated that Maria's contribution and influence was greater than the public would ever know. After visiting their studio, Hartmann described it as zppearing to be a stage set peopled by a cast of “amateurs in sympathetic, suffering, passive roles.” (Before Sunrise, c. 1893, Smithsonian Museum of American Art)

During their long, cogenial association Freer became an accomplice in concealing Dewing's extra-marital affairs with women who modeled for him.  “Destroy this letter, won't you” Dewing reminded Freer in a communication dated July 27, 1898, that was mailed from the Players' Club in New York City, in which he had discussed his affair with the actress Mollie Chatfield who posed for Portrait of a Lady (c. 1898) among other paintings,  

Another favorite and frequent model was Julia Baird, nicknamed Dudie.  A child from a hardscrabble background, by age seventeen Baird had already posed for Augustus Saint-Gaudens' nude statue of the goddess Diana that scandalized  New Yorkers when Stanford White set it atop his Madison Square Garden.  Baird was also an actress and an enthusiastic traveler, a daring hobby for  independently minded women at that time. "Social peculiarities" was the term that one critic applied to such artistically inclined women.  On the first occasion that Freer saw a painting of Dudie Baird, he pronounced her - and, presumably the painting as well -  a "corker."
 (Portrait in Blue (Julia Baird), 1896, Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C.)

It is not shapeless, it is not incoherent; the things that count, the faces and hands and bits of detail, are drawn with extremest and minutest perfection.  Yet it is not the completeness of the drawing that strikes one, but its quality.  It is infinitely delicate and refined, the contour fading into the background or reappearing with the changing light, and the color matches it, soft, shimmering, evanescent.  The canvases, unless decorative work, are usually small.”
                     Sadakichi Hartmann, quoted from History of American Art, vol. 1 (Boston: L. C. Page and Co., 1902), 307

Here Hartmann catches what Dewing was aiming at in his paintings of female figures in sparsely appointed rooms.   Dewing chose titles for his pictures with care, usually referring to the props employed – a mirror, a vase, etc.  His use of musical instruments had been used by the 18th century French painter Jean- Antoine Watteau.  These props were dynamically rendered but their lines were softened by the surrounding suffused light.  Dewing the sensualist in life was a formalist in art.

Notes on the paintings below:

At the time that it was first exhibited publicly, Dewing regarded A Reading as the best thing he had ever done.  The critics found something in it of Edgar Degas, in the skewed perspectives that play out on the surface of the highly polished table.  Its strong and simple definition of the architectural elements of the room reminds me of Fernand Khnopff, and with a similar result – a slight, hard to pin down sense of foreboding. Even when Dewing's work was in eclipse, regarded as outdated, the austere horizontal orientation of The Recitation found favor with admirers of abstract art.

The verdigris jar, a Roman antiquity, in Portrait of a Lady was borrowed from Dewing’s friend Dwight William Tryon for the occasion

In Brocart de Venise (c. 1898) Dewing's beautifully painted surface seems to be part of the reverie of his sitters.  Charlotte Hicks, the actress who was the model sitting in the foreground, was gravely ill at the time.....

The Mirror (c. 1907)  We see the seated woman from two points of view –  the first order is her back to the viewer and the second is the reflection of her face in the mirror.  Dewing creates a singular rhythm by juxtaposing her bare shoulders and the surface of the vase.

For further reading: Beauty Reconfigured: The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing by Susan A. Hobbs, with Barbara Dayer Gallati, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press: 1996.

A Reading, 1897, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.

Portrait of a Lady, 1898, private collection, California.

Brocart de Venise, c.1904, Mildred Lane Kemper Museum, St. Louis.

Woman In a Mirror, 1907, Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C.