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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.

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