Tag Archives: Thomas Dewing

Angry Birds?

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; Japan; late 19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; late 19th century;
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100


Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Hardly. When artists evoked avian melodies, as Thomas Dewing did in The Four Sylvan Soundsthey intended to soothe and refresh, to take the viewer out of “the harness of business” and into a more pleasant, “sylvan” realm. The sounds and scents of nature are mentioned with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. Dewing used the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble to induce Freer to visit him at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. “I wish you could be here,” Dewing wrote in June 1894, “taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.”

Two years later, the artist translated this experience into the visual language of painting, telling Freer he had begun work on a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.” These screens, now on view in Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan, incorporate a number of influences, the most direct being the natural beauty of the New England countryside. The figures were inspired by ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, and the theme came from a poem called “Wood Notes” by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dewing’s debt to Japanese art is evident in the bifold format of the screens and the simplicity of the unframed panels. The flowers and forest leaves, some painted with a stencil, resemble the elegant, stylized patterns of many screens in Freer’s Japanese collection, along with the multisensory imagery denoting bird songs and rustling grasses.

Rectangular Dish, Japan, stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Rectangular dish; Japan; stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze;
19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Freer had purchased his first two Japanese folding screens early in 1896, just after returning from his first visit to Japan. Later that same year, Dewing began to paint The Four Sylvan Sounds. During the two years that Dewing worked on these panels, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which are now in the museum’s collection. After promising his art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906, Freer stipulated that his Japanese screens had to be displayed in a special gallery in a proposed new museum. He envisioned the space as a link between galleries devoted to Dewing and other American artists and those featuring the art of Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West—a principle theme in the current exhibition as well.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan remains on view through May 18, 2014.

Women on the Verge of the Twentieth Century

The Carnation, 1893, Charles Wilmer Dewing, oil on wood panel, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.33a

In honor of Women’s History Month, we take a look at some of the models who posed for American artist Thomas Dewing.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, women’s lives and their role in society began to evolve. The push for equality and the suffragist movement led to the passage of women’s right to vote in 1920. James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Dewing, Abbott Thayer, and other artists painted idealized portraits of women and often framed them in elaborate golden creations designed by architect Stanford White or, indeed, by Whistler himself. The women depicted were hardly birds in gilded cages: these models and muses had goals and dreams. Many, such as Julia Baird, were “independently minded.” This seemed to have especially pleased Dewing, who requested that all his models “should have brains.” Underneath the veneer of beauty are women on the verge of coming into their own.

These paintings became a favorite of collector Charles Lang Freer. When he began to build a new home in Detroit in 1890, he decorated his residence with many of these works.

Julia “Dudie” Baird was the model for The Carnation, as well as Portrait of a Young Girl. When Freer purchased the above work in 1892, he declared it to be a “corker.”  An actress and inveterate traveler, Baird was a prominent New York model, who posed for Saint Gaudens’ statue of Diana which he placed on top of the Madison Square Garden.

Thomas Dewing painted La Comedienne in 1906. Miss Allen, who posed for the painting, was an amateur actor. In the painting, she holds a script and is seated in front of a box of costumes, which Dewing kept in his studio for his models to pose with. The model for The Piano was Minnie Clark (the original Gibson Girl), whom Dewing later referred to as “My Piano Model.”  Dewing often portrayed young women in a musical setting as illustrative of refinement. The Piano was the first Dewing painting that Charles Lang Freer chose for his collection.

For more on American Art in the Freer|Sackler collections, click here.