Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.
I recently had the opportunity to view Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s enigmatic painting The Lute up close. I was first drawn to the subtle tones of the painting, characteristic of the works he created at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. Then, I started wondering about the story. The Lute features four idealized female figures in an atmospheric landscape, subtly charming with its delicate surface texture.
The figures’ dreamlike quality—suspended in a verdurous gossamer backdrop—gives the interaction between the women a certain ethereality. The clear focal point of the four actors drew me closer to examine their relationship.
In my interpretation, the woman on the right plays the lute with an air of contentment, seemingly unaware of the three women watching in judgment, sinistrally. The observer closest to the performer seems to be looking on with contempt, chin raised in superiority; the next stands enviously, arms akimbo with a brick-wall resolution; and the final figure maintains lowered eyes, aloof from the scene, listening on wistfully, sadly.
I love that so many works in Freer’s collection represent points of contact and influence between cultures. The Lute is a lovely representation of that cross-cultural aesthetic interchange, clearly inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e painting and prints of “the floating world,” which were familiar to artists in both the United States and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The delicate craftsmanship, leisurely models, and poetic interactions are stunning.
Most interesting to me, though, is the poignant reflection on human nature that Dewing explores. Without any associated writing on the painting, the onus to decipher the narrative is placed on the viewer. Who is this lute player? How are her actions affecting the listeners? Would another person perceive their reactions differently than I do?
To me, as I view what I perceive as troubled responses to the performer, I am cautioned that human nature has a multiplicity of beautiful and vexing facets. I am reminded to listen to the lute with gratitude.
Unfortunately, The Lute is not currently on view. You can still view this American masterwork in stunning detail anytime you like on Open F|S, and you can explore related works in the Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan online exhibition feature.