In 1888, Dewing’s technique and subject matter underwent a small but significant shift. Susan Hobbs notes that he “stopped producing imaginative subjects,” as anything not observed in his paintings dissolved into a dream-like mist. This dissolution was afforded by the change in his technique, including the adoption of loose brushwork and a tonalist palette. In 1890, Dewing met the Detroit collector Charles Lang Freer. Freer’s fortune was built on railroad-car fabrication, and a love of fine art had developed over a decade of collecting prints and, increasingly, artifacts of east Asia. His refined personality contrasted starkly with Dewing’s bombastic nature. By the 1890s, Freer had the wealth to acquire major pictures and a newly-constructed home to fill with them. He “plunged into collecting with a quiet desperation,” his private curator recalled [as quoted by Susan Hobbs in The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing: Beauty Reconfigured (1996), p. 18]. Dewing’s fiery personality, as well as his commitment to painting women, which Freer initially abjured, were apparently no barrier to their immediate, long-lasting, and friendly patronage relationship. Dewing, for his part, was profoundly grateful to meet “someone in the world so faithful to me and my art” [as quoted in http://www.asia.si.edu/explore/american/dewing.asp]. Dewing personally advised Freer in the decoration of his home, and, when the painter later fell on hard times, was buffeted by his employ as a buying agent for Japanese prints and objets d’art as well as prints by James Abbott McNeil Whistler.
The present work was executed in the decade between Dewing’s first encounter with Whistler and the loss of Dewing’s friend and erstwhile collaborator, Stanford White. The entry and exit of these two major personalities from Dewing’s life also delimit the height of his career: his mature style had solidified into a clear voice of beauty and decoration just as the Arts and Crafts moment was crystallizing in America. Dewing would continue to work through the next decades, but by the advent of modernism, at the turn of the century, he was at the height of his powers, and the full wind of critical opinion filled his sails.
The present work is an excellent example from Dewing’s best years. The subject sits at table with a ceramic vase in a decorative arrangement of tones of grays and browns in careful harmony. The subject bears a strong resemblance to the model for 1905’s Portrait of a Girl (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.). This resemblance may be coincidental, as Dewing was explicit in his remarks that a sitter was a point of departure for the true artist. He certainly moved from the particular sitter towards his own ideal of beauty. Whatever the woman’s identity, the plausible comparison highlights another source of inspiration common to both paintings: Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer’s glassy surfaces and soft interior light were emulated by other members of The Ten, but Dewing’s interest in the Dutch master was especially personal. Charles Freer put into Dewing’s hands several volumes of Cornelis Hofstede de Groot’s catalogue raisonne on Vermeer. Dewing’s paint application was too distant from Vermeer’s to fully complete the homage, but the American did adopt the use of certain Vermeer-esque props as well as a version of his soft domestic light. Portrait of a Girl is the height of Dewing’s admiration, and the present work, with its carefully modeled vase and table, exploits a similar technique. Woman Seated at Table constitutes a paradigm case of Dewing’s mature vision of feminine beauty.