Monday, March 15, 2010

Pastel Venus: Reclining Nude by Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Reclining Nude (c. 1891) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Almost exactly a year ago, Agent Triple P was wandering around the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC accompanied by the lovely M. They came across this small pastel, tucked a way in a rather dark corner. Triple P grabbed a quick photograph so he could research the picture later. Fortunately, unlike the UK, Americans do not seem to have a problem with you taking photographs in their museums. Understandably, with some exhibits, they do not want the use of flash but you always get the feeling in British museums that the ban on photography is more to do with potential lost postcard revenue than protecting the art works.

The picture in situ

Thomas Wilmer Dewing was born in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts in 1851. He studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, and later moved to New York. In 1897 he was one of the Ten American Painters who resigned from the Society of American Artists in protest at what they considered increasing commercialisation of that group's exhibitions. Ironically, the Society had itself broken away from the National Academey of Design twenty years previously. The group, who became just known as simply The Ten, painted their impressionist pictures for twenty years before the deaths of the members broke it up.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Dewing was very much a tonalist, an American movement whose most well known exponent was Whistler, who used the characteristic limited palette and misty style on figures, usually female, in cool interiors. He died in 1938.

Augustus Saint-Gauden's Diana (second version)

This nude is unusual in Dewing's catalogue in that it wasn't a study but was commisioned by architect and art collector Stanford White. After the unveiling of Augustus Saint-Gauden's Diana, which was designed as a weather vane for the White designed Madison Square Garden, people complained that it might corrupt passers by. It provoked yet another discussion in America about the nude and art. Possibly the cause of the ruckus was the sheer size of Saint-Gauden's original which stood over eighteen feet high. He and White later decided that it was too big for the building and so he designed a smaller (13 feet) version which replaced the first version. The large version was destroyed in a fire, after it had been moved to Chicago, but the smaller version is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (it was taken down when White's building was demolished in 1925) where Triple P saw it last year.

Too big a nude for New York (1st version)

Faced with the controversy over the Diana weathervane White, who was a friend of both Saint-Gauden and Dewing started to assemble a collection of all the nudes he could find in order to "shock all the straight laced persons in town" and it was at this point (probably 1891 when the statue was finished) that he commissioned the picture from Dewing.

A more conventional nude by Dewing

The soft and sensuous treatment of the figure is obviously designed for a private collection as it would have been far too shocking for American taste at the time. The girl's sinuous body catches the light on a completely abstracted background and is delicately rendered but her face, in shadow, is merely suggested. If White wanted a picture that was all about the body then Dewing certainly delivered!

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