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Avery Galleries

Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Seated Woman

Signed and numbered lower right: T.W. Dewing / 105

14 3/4 x 11 1/2 inches (37.5 x 29.2 cm)


Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s works on paper were almost entirely executed in pastel.  His interest in the medium stemmed from James McNeill Whistler’s command of it, as evidenced by Whistler’s famous 1889 pastel exhibition in New York, which Dewing attended and was deeply influenced by. It is not surprising then that Dewing completed his first pastel in 1890; his first recorded sale of such a drawing took place in 1893.

Initially, Dewing’s drawings were small in size like Whistler’s, and he created them for individual clients. Later he produced pastels primarily for exhibition and used larger paper, measuring 15 x 11 ½ inches.  After 1909 he began to number these drawings, so he could keep track of his works when he exhibited them.

Seated Woman of c. 1915-20 is one of the larger pastels, numbered 105, that Dewing likely intended for public display.  As with his other drawings, he used a fine paper that enhanced the delicacy and gossamer effects of his draftsmanship.  Susan Hobbs points out that Dewing’s figures appear to “emerge from the shadow into light,” and we see that here in Seated Woman.1 The sitter’s face is in shadow while the diaphanous quality of her dress is luminous.  She is at once beautiful and yet utterly mysterious.

Much of the subject matter in Dewing’s oeuvre was devoted to the idea of the “ideal woman,” and this pastel is no exception.  The figure’s attenuated limbs and elegant poise convey an air of dignity and stature, while her face remains arch and elusive, turning slightly away from the viewer. Indeed, in 1901, an art critic praised Dewing as the only American painter who “succeeded in giving us pictures of women that might stand for the ‘ideal American’ type.”2

Dewing’s focus on his distinctive and complex ideas about female beauty were defining.  For him, the ideal woman was detached and ethereal; she existed in a rarified world that defied real time and space.  More often, he focused on his sitters’ dresses and poses than on the specific characteristics of their faces.  In Seated Woman, the pastel strokes that make up the dress are deft and confident, yet also economical.  The soft pink hues that emerge from the brown paper have a haunting effect.  Both the chair and model’s face are subordinate to the beauty and minutiae of her raiment—the open-cut sleeve, delicately draped bodice, and cascading train that flows down the side of her body.  This work, and so many of Dewing’s pastels and paintings, was primarily aesthetic in intention.  “To see beautifully,” was everything to the artist, and so here beauty abounds.3