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Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer and painter Thomas Dewing met in 1891 and developed an enduring relationship based on shared aesthetic sensibilities and genuine friendship. Early in their acquaintance, Dewing noted that Freer’s attitude toward the artists whose works he collected was different from “most people who buy pictures.” Dewing confided to Freer that he had never hoped to meet “someone in the world so faithful to me and my art.”

Dewing received his early education in his hometown of Boston, where he worked as an apprentice with a well-known local lithographer and began his artistic training at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1874 he established himself as a portrait and landscape painter. Two years later, in 1876, he left for Paris, where he continued his studies at the Académie Julian. Dewing became the first American in a long line of aspiring young painters from across the Atlantic to enroll in that prestigious private art school. After he returned to the United States in the fall of 1877, Dewing launched his painting career in New York City.

During the early 1880s, Dewing worked in the style of British aesthetic painters and particularly admired the Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). Critics noted that Dewing’s paintings of this period were overly decorative and lacked narrative or symbolic meaning. He later developed a more tonal style similar to that of James McNeill Whistler, and he banished virtually all remnants of narrative from his art.

Dewing’s contemporaries knew him as “an artist’s artist,” whose restrained style appealed largely to the most discerning of viewers. The painter Frederick Stuart Church (1842–1924) attributed “an air of refinement” to Dewing’s work, a quality that made his paintings particularly attractive to Freer. The collector’s growing reputation as a connoisseur was enhanced by his association with artists who, as one writer claimed, “had withdrawn . . . from the commoner aims, pursuits, and circumstances of a commercial generation.” Freer eventually acquired forty-one works by Dewing, including oil paintings, pastels, silverpoint drawings, and a pair of bifold screens.