Thomas Wilmer Dewing is best known for his subtly-observed paintings of women, often in allegorical contexts. “The recurring theme in Thomas Dewing’s art,” wrote Lloyd Goodrich in 1963, “is womankind. His ethereal creatures . . . are exquisite sonnets to femininity” [as quoted by Mitsutoshi Oba in Eclectic Symbolism: The Interplay of Japonisme and Classicism in the Folding Screens by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1896-1900 (2004), p. 34]. His work grew from a British aestheticist idiom to a mature style in a tonalist manner. His work was coveted in the late nineteenth century for its decorative quality, holding a wall as well as expressing an almost elemental beauty and refinement. He embraced elements of Japanese screens and incorporated these into his repertoire of design as he crafted images of extraordinary delicacy.
If Dewing the painter was known for delicate paintings, Dewing the man left quite the opposite impression. Frederick S. Church remarked that Dewing left “a decided odor of hell-fire and brimstone” in his wake [as quoted by Susan Hobbs in “Thomas Wilmer Dewing: The Early Years, 1851-1885,” in The American Art Journal, Spring 1981, p. 6]. “It seemed strange, and still does,” wrote Nelson C. White, a friend of the painter’s, “that this large powerful man should have produced pictures of such rare refinement and delicacy of feeling” [Oba (2004), p. 20].
Dewing’s artistic training centered, like many Boston-area painters of the day, around his study in Europe. In the late 1870s, Dewing enrolled at the Academie Julian, practicing life study with Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. Dewing seems to have disliked his time there, but he returned to America in 1878 well-armed: with friendships with peers William Merritt Chase and William Sartain; with a well-polished drawing practice; and with a newfound love of Velazquez, among other Old Masters. These attributes set the stage for Dewing’s young mature style, with female figures in dramatic poses. When Dewing exhibited his work that year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, R. Swain Gifford remarked, “There is a man by the name of Dewing in Boston that does charming figure subjects, a new man and little known but I believe him to be a remarkably fine painter” [Ibid., p. 16]. By 1880, Dewing left Boston for New York. Recognizing the metropolis as the cultural center of the nation, he once remarked to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, “Why Gussie, if you’re not in New York, you’re camping out” [Ibid., p. 24]. By the following year, he had been elected to the Society of American Artists and taken a teaching position at the Art Students League. The latter accolade was critical to his entry into New York art circles, but equally important to Dewing as it introduced him to his future wife, Maria Oakey. Oakey was herself a painter of some esteem, and they were wed in April of 1881. The couple soon moved into the Studio Building on Washington Square, where Oakey’s poetry co-mingled with Dewing’s interest in music and theater, all of which found expression in each of their painting practices. Royal Cortissoz, Dewing’s “faithful friend of more than four decades” [Oba (2004), p. 10] reminisced: “I used to be charmed by the harp on the door which gave forth delicate music as the door opened and shut…That is what characterized his art, an exquisite music” [as quoted in Hobbs, 1981, p. 27].