The work of Thomas Wilmer Dewing represents an aggregate removal of the vulgarity of life from painting. A champion of poetic beauty, Dewing’s career is emblematic in its representations of women in ethereal landscapes. This concept is personified in Dewing’s statement, “true art… [which is] imaginative art…is the domain of poetry and painting.” There is an inherently intellectual component to his paintings which is reflective of his connection to erudite New England social circles. His own aristocratic superiority was personified in his refusal to show this type of work at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Dewing wrote in a letter to patron Charles Lang Freer, “My pictures of this class are not understood by the great public who go to an exhibition like the Pan American.” He further attested, “My decorations belong to the poetic, imaginative world where a few choice spirits live.” These comments are indicative of the elite representations of women embodied in many of Dewing’s landscape works and are further illustrated in, In the Garden, 1892-94.
Promoting the Aesthetic and Tonalist movements through his paintings, In the Garden, reflects the societal hierarchy characteristic of the late nineteenth century. The women depicted are adorned with fine evening attire which reveals their personal social standings. The painting is very much a spectator sport for the viewer as it works as a mere window into the lives of these high-class people. Though there is not specificity articulated in the representation of landscape, the work is purposeful in its illustration of the exclusivity of this world. As Dewing referred to these women as “decorations,” their function becomes regrettably evident. They are solely suggestive of taste during this period and are reflective of larger sentiments about aesthetics which manifested throughout the Gilded Age. Furthermore, the women are reflective of Anglo-Saxon society and are as much an idealization of race as they are about class during the nineteenth century.
Alluding to the Three Graces in Greek mythology, the women are further idealized in their characterizations of charm, beauty, and creativity. The aesthetic landscape serves as a removal of these women from crudity of urban life. These associations also tie into themes which artists of the Aesthetic movement sought to encourage. Many of these works were painted during Thomas Dewing’s residence in Cornish, New Hampshire where he was a member of the Cornish Art Colony. This social group encompassed numerous artists, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who were enamored by the natural landscape the area provided. These artists sought to merge cultured connections between their own inclusive intellectual circle and their art. The correlation to social class deriving from nature is a central theme of In the Garden and it relates to Dewing’s rendering of these beautiful women. Elitist groups are consequently rooted in intellectual aestheticism and furthermore, serve as a promotion of refined women in landscape versus city life.
These soft representations are reflective of a principal portion of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s career. In the Garden, 1892-94, is a singular example of Dewing’s insistence on painting a certain kind of woman. She is a symbol of class and a highbrow understanding of aesthetics in regards to the nature of what it means to be beautiful. Through Aesthetic and Tonalist motifs, Dewing was effective in presenting his personal idealizations of women. Deeply rooted in social and artistic hierarchy, the themes of Dewing’s career rely on the ethereal affect produced by his nondescript style. A mood and sense is suggested by In the Garden which speaks about the picture as a whole and furthermore, discusses the role of women in nineteenth century American society.
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