Four highly improbable ladies, one twanging a stringed instrument, float in a green meadow. They do so in "The Lute," this highly improbable oil by Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938) at the Freer Gallery of Art. Their necks are very long, they wear off-the-shoulder gowns, but there is nothing in the least carnal in their beauty, perish the thought. That's because these creatures are sinless and ethereal. They're supposed to make you think -- as are the bronzes and the jades that surround them at the Freer -- of spiritual refinement, beauty for its own sake, poetical perfection, that sort of thing.

None, you may notice, has toenails, or, for that matter, feet. They don't need feet. Feet touch the ground.

When founder Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) brought out his Chinese porcelains he would only do so slowly, one vase at a time. He meant to cast a spell of aesthetic meditation. Dewing's weightless damsels were designed for the same purpose. They're not women. Brittle as porcelain, empty as vases, they're merely objets d'art.

-- Paul Richard

The Freer Gallery of Art, on the Mall at 12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW, owns many Dewings, all most delicately brushed. This one, dated 1904, has a gilded frame designed by Stanford White. It hangs in Gallery 10. Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except July 4, and on Thursdays from July 10-Aug. 14, when it will be stay open until 8 p.m. Call 202-633-4880 or visit their Web site at www.asia.si.edu.