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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Dewing and the women

by Philip Martin | August 1, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--I only recently learned of Thomas Dewing, who painted mostly women.

"Aristocratic women," most of the capsule biographies say, but not all the models are identified. Those that are are society women: Annie Lazarus, wealthy sister of the poet Emma; painter Frances C. Houston; a portrait of 3-year-old Ethel Dench Puffer, who would grow up to be one of the country's first female psychologists and most vocal feminists.

But later they become less specified, less tied to tangible symbols of reality. Slim women with long limbs, draped in diaphanous gowns or nothing at all. These are his simplest painting, set in tonalist limbos. Dewing's palette is restrained; his pastels have a misty dream-like quality, a timelessness that proceeds from their tasteful simplicity and soft smudged faces. One more turn, with some cruelty, and he might have been Francis Bacon. But if there is cruelty in Dewing you can't discern it in his work.

His father died an alcoholic, some sources say, but he was obviously not from a family without resources. He studied at the Lowell Institute in his native Boston, then traveled to Paris, where he enrolled at the Académie Julian in 1876. He came back to teach for a time at Boston's newly opened Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts before moving to the locus of American culture, New York City, in 1880.

A year later he married the more-established artist Maria Oakey, who would eventually come to feel that her work was obscured by her husband's. At the end of her life, she would lament that she "had hardly touched any achievement" though her 1895 painting "Garden in May" is a considered an important piece in the Smithsonian's collection of American art and her 1901 painting "Rose Garden" is described as a "visitor favorite" by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

We cannot know exactly why her output decreased after her marriage to Dewing; we only know that it did and her artistic legacy amounts to less than 24 canvases. As she grew older she turned to writing books about keeping house and etiquette, articles about art and her theories on it for magazines like the American Magazine of Art and Art and Progress, in which in 1915 she wrote:

"The flower offers a removed beauty that exists only for beauty, more abstract than it can be in the human being, even more exquisite. One may begin with the human figure at the logical and realistic, but in painting the flower one must even begin at the exquisite and distinguished."

But Dewing painted women, lots of them. He painted his wife. He painted the wife of his chief patron, Stanford White, whose name you might know.

White was a great architect, a rival of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, and the Jeffrey Epstein of the Gilded Age. If you know anything about him you know how he was murdered by the crazy millionaire Harry K. Thaw in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the rooftop theater of the second Madison Square Garden, a building White had designed.

Thaw was angry with White for a couple of reasons; he thought White had blackballed him socially and had raped his wife, then-It Girl Evelyn Nesbit, when she was a teenage chorus girl.

The murder of Stanford White is one of those moments in American history that's as indelible as myth; it was central to "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing," a 1955 movie that starred Joan Collins as Nesbit that is primarily remembered today because Marilyn Monroe refused the part as "too trashy," then broke away from Paramount and started her own production company.

It also figured in E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime" and the subsequent 1981 movie and 1998 musical derived from the book.

But Stanford--"Stanny"--White was more than a powerful man who lusted after young women. He was also a patron of the arts. And he designed many of the elaborate gold frames that surround Thomas Dewing's shimmering Vermeer-like paintings of young women.

Not far from where the Dewings lived on Washington Square, there was an apartment building for bachelors called the Benedick, after the willful lord who pledges never to marry in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." It was there that White rented some rooms for a group of rascals that included sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who crafted the golden statue of nude huntress Diana that served as a weather vane atop the old Madison Square Garden (Evelyn Nesbit was rumored to have modeled for it, but that was a lie; she was 8 years old and undiscovered when the statue was cast.)

Other members included architect Joseph Wells, artist Frank Lathrop, and Thomas Dewing.

They called themselves the Sewer Club, and what they got up to we don't have to imagine. Dewing described those nights as "scenes of mirth and physiological interest and investigations," which is a prissy way of saying that they had sex with underage working-class girls lured there with promises of money or other inducements.

The Benedick had artists' studios on its upper floor; Winslow Homer and John LaFarge worked there. It had good light.

Dewing may have painted some of his women there, women he may have shared with his patron White--women whose portraits now hang in the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery. Some of these seemingly aristocratic young women, who look so modern and defiant, were rented chorines and working girls. They were bargained for.

It should not be surprising that bad men should make great art. It might even be that a certain ruthlessness is requisite, that genius must be fueled by selfishness. Anyway, the pictures are dazzling, and Dewing gives his women mystery and dignity.

The last thing they look like are victims.


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