Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Artist Biography

American tonalist specializing in elegant, idealized aristocratic women

By Kate Amundsen

Painting figures in a tonalist style at a time when Impressionism was dominant, Dewing became a beloved artist influenced by other major tonalists, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Thomas Wilmer Dewing was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1851 and died in New York in 1938 at the age of eighty-seven. Throughout his long life and career, Dewing distinguished himself during an era dominated by impressionists by dedicating himself fully to the tonalist style. In addition, he also differentiated himself from his contemporaries by using tonalist methods to depict idealized figures of feminine beauty rather than traditional landscape subjects. His depictions of women portray elegant, often elusive figures, appearing to be deep in contemplation. Using contrasting colors within a specialized pastel palette, Dewing employed one color on the figure to reflect the few others used to produce the overall aesthetic effect. His major influences include Johannes Vermeer and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the latter often considered the father of tonalism, both of whom used similar techniques to create a moving image of figures in sparse interiors.

Dewing’s early life experience brought about a love of music, which would later influence many of his paintings in which models hold musical instruments or books on music. The ways in which women were depicted by Dewing reflects the male-dominated, nineteenth century concepts of femininity, women’s roles, and even their capacity for intelligence.

He was apprenticed to a lithographer and later studied painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.[1] After studying in Boston, he had a brief stay in Albany from 1875 to 1876, where he was able to make enough money to support a year-long stint in Paris; he was the first American student to enroll at the Académie Julian. In 1878, he began exhibiting with the newly founded Society of American Artists in New York and would move there two years later to teach at the Art Students League.

Upon his return to the States, he joined the newly organized Society of American Painters and quickly found himself immersed in New York's art scene, which centered around the salon of Richard Watson Gilder. Gilder was the editor of The Century magazine and had a great influence on the aesthetic taste of many artists at the time, including writers, painters, musicians, and draftsmen. This setting also allowed Dewing to meet two of the most important aides in his aesthetic cause: renowned architect Stanford White, who would make the majority of Dewing’s custom frames; and Maria Oakley, a talented artist who would become Dewing’s wife. Oakley’s experience and influence became the primary catalyst which changed Dewing’s style from depicting distinctly outlined figures to his celebrated mature style with softer representations of idealized, feminine beauty.[2]

In 1897, Dewing joined a group called The Ten American Painters, a group of American impressionists who developed and popularized the style in the United States. For twenty years, these painters exhibited annually. Dewing’s typical depictions of women, either of a single figure or a small group which he called “decorations,” were mainly painted during this period when he summered at either the artist colony in Cornish, New Hampshire, or in East Hampton, Long Island. Though his scenes may not have pointed to of a specific area or locale, he was very conscientious of the overall appearance and theme of his paintings, and he made careful compositional decisions to create his desired effect.[3]

II. Chronology

1851 Born in Boston, Massachusetts
1875–76 Studied in Albany, New York
1876 Studied at the Académie Julian
1878 Exhibited at Society of American Artists
1885–1905 Cornish, New Hampshire art colony dominated by the Dewings at dominance
1897 Joined the Ten Painters
1905 Painted his dominantly interior scenes of women
1938 Died in New York

III. Collections

Cleveland Museum of Art
Marshall Collection
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
National Gallery of Art
Pfiel Collection
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art

IV. Exhibitions

1879 Delaware Art Museum
1883 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
1894 Smithsonian American Art Museum
1907 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
1911 Art Institute of Chicago
1923 Corcoran Gallery of Art
1926 Metropolitan Museum of Art

V. Memberships

Académie Julian
Art Students League of New York
National Academy of Design
Society of American Painters
Ten American Painters

VI. Notes

1. Virginia Reed Colby and James B. Atkinson, Footprints of the Past: Images of Cornish, New Hampshire (New Hampshire: New Hampshire Historical Society, 1996), 230–32.
2. Alma Gilbert-Smith, Cornish Art of the Past Century: Art for Art's Sake (Cornish Colony Gallery & Museum Press, Cornish, New Hampshire, 2001), 18.
3. Susan Hobbs, The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing Beauty Reconfigured (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Books, 1996), 120.

VII. Suggested Resources

Colby, Virginia Reed and James B. Atkinson. Footprints of the Past: Images of Cornish, New Hampshire. New Hampshire: New Hampshire Historical Society, 1996.
Gilbert-Smith, Alma. Cornish Art of the Past Century: Art for Art's Sake. Cornish Colony Gallery & Museum Press, Cornish, New Hampshire, 2001, 18.
Halk, Peter Hastings. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975. New York: Marquis Who’s Who, 2011.
Hobbs, Susan. The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Beauty Reconfigured. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Books, 1996.
Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Guide to Original Art Colonies and Their Artists. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.

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