Hood Museum of Art

Dartmouth College

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Hood Museum of Art Acquires Rare Outdoor Still Life by Maria Oakey Dewing

 

Like many artists who gathered at the turn-of-the-century art colony in Cornish, New Hampshire, Maria Oakey Dewing (1845-1927) harbored a devotion to gardening that was second only to her pursuit of art. From 1885 to 1903, Dewing and her painter husband, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, summered in Cornish, where Maria merged her dual creative passions by painting flowers from her own garden. She created portraits of elegant tabletop arrangements and lush floral vignettes set outdoors. Although Dewing is best known for these unusual plein air still lifes, the locations of only a few are known today, Earlier this year, the Hood Museum of Art acquired one of these exquisite and rare works, Iris at Dawn, which was painted in 1899 and held until recently in private collections. It is now on view in the museum's Israel Sack Gallery for American art. (left: Maria Oakey Dewing (1845-1927), Iris at Dawn, 1899, oil in canvas, Collection of the Hood Museum of Art)

Writing about the tradition of flower painting in 1915, Maria Dewing asserted that a painter of nature must first engage in a "long apprenticeship in the garden." This she clearly did herself and, in the process, became both
a seasoned gardener and knowledgeable amateur botanist. The Dewings and their luxuriant gardens are often credited, in fact, with inspiring the horticultural craze that swept through the Cornish art colony in the 1890s.

Characteristic of Maria Dewing's outdoor still lifes, Iris at Dawn reflects her familiarity with her subject in its presentation of an intimate, "gardener's-eye" perspective of a bed of iris. Its lack of a horizon line, tight cropping, and close vantage point give the work a strikingly modern appearance and elicit in the viewer the sensation of being immersed among the flowers.

By portraying the iris in its natural habitat, in various configurations and stages of bloom, Dewing accentuates the plant's vitality and its distinct growth habits. With delicate, overlapping veils of lavender, blue, and pink, she conveys the special fragility and translucence of the iris blossoms--some of them clearly defined and others emerging less distinctly from a shadowy background. While remaining faithful to nature, Dewing imbued this and other floral compositions with a poetic, almost mysterious quality suggestive of larger themes. One of the most influential art critics of the period, Royal Cortissoz, admired the lyricism of her works and what he perceived as her ability to magically capture a blossom's "soul" as well as its "portrait."

Although Maria Dewing's career was eventually overshadowed by that of her husband, when the couple met she was by far the more highly trained and well-established artistic figure, at that time known for portraiture, still life, and figure painting. Raised in a cultured family in New York City, she studied art at the Cooper Union School of Design for Women and the Antique School of the National Academy of Design. Especially influential were her studies with John La Farge in the early 1870s and with Thomas Couture in Paris in 1876. Her floral subjects owed a special debt to La Farge, whose work she found "the most beautiful in all the world," and to Japanese art, which she would have known through the collections of La Farge and, later, Charles Lang Freer, one of Thomas Dewing's foremost patrons.

Following her marriage to Dewing in 1881, Maria for the most part abandoned her early interest in figure painting, perhaps to avoid competing directly with her husband in his preferred genre. She collaborated with him, however, by providing the floral backgrounds for several of his works, including The Days (1886, Wadsworth Atheneum) and Hymen (1886, Cincinnati Art Museum), the latter being the only canvas to bear the signatures of both artists. Maria Dewing appears to have influenced her husband's work in other, less tangible, ways. She once commented, "I feel his work to be more mine in spirit than my own can be." Judging from her later writings, she did not regret her shift in artistic subject matter. Revealing her grounding in the "art-for-art's sake" precepts of the Aesthetic Movement, she observed: "The flower offers a removed beauty that exists only for beauty, more abstract than it can be in the human being, even more exquisite."

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