Museum-goers who'd like to see some Post-Impressionist paintings -- without standing in line at the National Gallery -- have an unexpected treat in store.
The Freer Gallery of Art has just opened a new gallery devoted to 28 paintings, pastels and drawings of Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938), one of the dozen American painters Freer knew, admired and collected. Freer sought, he said, contemporary art that would be "at home" with the spirit of refinement he found in Oriental art, which the Freer was built to house. That spirit pervades not only the paintings but every aspect of this fine little show.
Dewing, who seems to have painted nothing but elegant women engaged in genteel pursuits (playing an instrument, holding a flower, reading a book, looking into a mirror or just standing), is also represented in the National Gallery's "Post-Impressionism" extravanganza as one of a group of turn-of-the-century American painters -- John Twachtman, Childe Hassam and James McNeill Whistler among them -- who were influenced by the Impressionists and opposed to the prevailing academic tradition of Bierstadt, Church and others.
Like many of the others, the Boston-born Dewing was trained at the Academie Julian in Paris and in Munich, where he learned a mastery of classical draftsmanship and precise rendering that never left him. He did explore the new possibilities opened up by the French impressionists, and in the course of his career gradually adopted Impresionist color and stippled brushstroking. But the final results suggest that he was less concerned with breaking down light and color than he was in adopting the superficial look of the new technique to heighten the mood of utter tranquility that pervades his work.
He did this with great success in some paintings, notably the seated and standing figures of women in the various gowns he kept on hand for his models to pose in. In most of the larger sylvan scenes, however, the women seem to be made of real substance, while the air and light around them dissolve into froth. Dewing was a fine painter, and while his pictures are endlessly soothing and give great visual and visceral pleasure, they do not, by any means, bespeak a revolt. Rather, they reflect the prevailing aesthetic of his time: beauty for its own sake.
Dewing played a special role in Freer's life, and helped him decorate his manse in Detroit. One of the lunettes he painted for the Freer parlor is on view here. Another painting of a woman looking into a mirror was made around the time Freer sent Dewing a new book about the Dutch painter Vermeer, who often used the mirror device in his work. All of this information is provided in exemplary labels beside each work, written by none other than Freer director Thomas Lawton. "We want people to see and enjoy what we have in the way of American art," says Lawton, and he has done everything possible to see that they do.
The Dewing gallery is but one of three new installations devoted to Freer's American collection. There is one devoted to other American Impressionists, Dewing's friends and contemporaries, and another to Whistler, the man who started Freer off on collecting Oriental art. There are large, deliciously comfortable sofas and a fresh coat of paint to enhance the pure pleasure of looking while sitting down. Even Whistler's famous "Peacock Room" now has sofas, plus a growing collection of blue-and-white porcelain to decorate the walls.
The Dewing installation will remain on view through January.