Personal life and education
Thomas was born in Boston, Massachusetts to parents Sophronia Durant and Paul Dewing, and served as a lithographic apprentice until at least 1870 when he was 19 years old. He later studied at the Académie Julian in Paris with Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre beginning in 1876. “There he learned an academic technique; the careful delineation of volumetric form and meticulous but subtle evocation of texture were to be constant features of his work.”
In 1880 he moved to New York where he met and married Maria Oakey Dewing, an accomplished painter with extensive formal art training and familial links with the art world. They had a son who died while an infant. In 1885 their daughter Elizabeth was born. The Dewings spent their summers at the Cornish Art Colony in New Hampshire from 1885 to 1905. These years may not have been as peaceful as they seemed, however. Thomas lost both of his surviving siblings, Paul F. and Louise within a month of each other in 1903.
Upon his return to the United States from France in 1878, Dewing returned to Boston. The following year he painted Morning, a composition of two women dressed in Renaissance gowns, which is said by biographer Ross C. Anderson to have the quality of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and emotion of a James McNeill Whistler work. He began teaching at the Art Students League of New York in 1881, the same year he married Maria Oakley.
He is best known for his tonalist paintings, a genre of American art that was rooted in English Aestheticism. Dewing’s preferred vehicle of artistic expression is the refined, aristocratic female figure situated in a moody and dreamlike surrounding. Often seated playing instruments, writing letters, or simply communicating with one another, Dewing’s sensitively portrayed figures have a detachment from the viewer that keeps the spectator a remote witness to the scene rather than a participant.
He was elected into the National Academy of Design in 1888. Dewing was a founding member of the Ten American Painters in 1898, a group of artists who seceded from the Society of American Artists in 1897. He joined the Society of Landscape Painters, founded in 1899, where he was more aligned with other Tonalist artists.
Key collectors of his works were John Gellatly and Charles Lang Freer.
He did not paint much after 1920 and lived out his later years in his Cornish, New Hampshire, home. His wife died in 1927 in New York City and Dewing died in New York in 1938.
A noted Dewing scholar and curator is Susan A. Hobbs, who co-authored The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing: Beauty Reconfigured and co-curated a 1996 exhibition of his works of the same name with Dr. Barbara Dayer Gallati. Until that time it was the largest retrospective of his works; 70 paintings—oils, watercolors, silverpoints and pastels— were shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The shows ran from March 1996 through January 1997. The exhibition was made possible from funding from The Overbrook Foundation, the David Schwartz Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The timeless nature of Dewing’s landscapes stands in sharp contrast to the ever-increasing pace of modern life in New England. Verdant, mysterious, and peopled with attractive, classically dressed women, Dewing’s paintings provided fixed points of truth and beauty for a turn-of-the-century generation fearing the great changes in American culture wrought by immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. Dewing’s father worked in a paper mill, suffered financial ruin, and died an alcoholic, yet he descended from one of the first families of seventeenth-century New England. Despite modest circumstances, Dewing studied at the Lowell Institute in the native Boston and traveled to Paris, where he enrolled at the Académie Julian in 1876. Returning to Boston, he taught at the newly opened Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts before moving, like so many writers and artists of his generation, to New York City. Living in New York, Dewing sought refuge from the vicissitudes of his new environment by returning annually, from 1885 to 1905, to the artists’s colony at Cornish, New Hampshire. In Cornish, he perfected the misty, dream-like aesthetic that he used to depict a beautiful past.
William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein, editors, with contributions by Dona Brown, Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Judith K. Maxwell, Stephen Nissenbaum, Bruce Robertson, Roger B. Stein, and William H. Truettner Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory (Washington, D.C.; New Haven, Conn; and London: National Museum of American Art with Yale University Press, 1999)
Thomas Wilmer Dewing studied for a time in Paris, then returned home and taught at the newly opened art school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But he was ambitious and knew that he needed to live in New York to establish himself as a leading artist. He moved in 1880 and on Christmas Day of that year proposed to artist Maria Oakey. The young couple embraced New York’s cultural scene, joining a circle of rising artists, actors, musicians, and writers. For more than fifteen years, Thomas and Maria led the artists’ colony at Cornish, New Hampshire, pursuing a “higher life” through art, music, and literature. Dewing and his friends believed that the role of art was to “suggest emotions or recall … memories of past experiences, of love, poetic thought …” (Hobbs, Beauty Reconfigured, 1996). Dewing continued to paint into the early years of the twentieth century with the support of railroad-car manufacturer Charles Lang Freer and insurance magnate John Gellatly, both of whom gave their extensive collections to the Smithsonian Institution.