'Plein air' piece arrives at Hood

by Alex Rich | 11/2/99 6:00am

The artwork of American painter Maria Oakey Dewing is rarely exhibited in museums. In fact, it is extremely difficult for museums to locate Dewing's work, let alone display it. Thus, the Hood Museum of Art's recent acquisition of Dewing's "Iris at Dawn," an 1889 still life, is an exciting addition to the museum's ever-growing American art collection.

"Iris at Dawn" is representative of the paintings for which Dewing became known during her years at a Cornish, New Hampshire art colony.

These paintings, known as "plein air" still-lifes, offer a unique take on still-life painting. Instead of the usual indoor tabletop still-lifes, which Dewing produced as well, paintings such as "Iris at Dawn" feature flowers in their natural state.

She utilized the same precise techniques of indoor paintings, but focused on the floral arrangements as they appear in nature. Dewing's still-lifes also cover a broad spectrum of artistic styles, which added to the acquisition's appeal.

"The painting helps fill some gaps in the collection. It fits in anywhere from still life to floral painting to Japanism," Bonnie MacAdam, Curator of American Art, said.

"Iris at Dawn" is a precious acquisition for the Hood Museum, not only for its rarity but also for its ties to the New Hampshire area.

As MacAdam said, "Dewing's work is so incredibly rare. There are only six of these outdoor floral compositions located today. It is rare for a work like this to come on the market."

Dewing's summers from 1885 through 1903 were spent at the Cornish art colony. She lived with her husband, painter Thomas Wilmer Dewing, whose acclaim as an artist would overshadow that of his wife. His wife, however, was the more established artist of the two at the time they met.

Dewing, like the other inhabitants of the arts colony, was a devoted gardener and painter. And in her artwork, her skill as a gardener and her love for painting were seamlessly merged. This attention to natural beauty won her a name in American art.

"Dewing started out as a portrait and figure painter, but in the 1880s and 1890s, she moved to floral paintings " probably to not compete with her husband," MacAdam said.

Whatever the reason behind Dewing's artistic shift, it was a successful one. Her work exemplifies the naturalistic approach many artists took at the turn-of-the-century. The art colony fostered "artful living", MacAdam said.

The gardeners and painters of the colony directed an intense seriousness toward their work, whether it be cultivating a garden or creating a work of art.

"Iris at Dawn" was painted outdoors, making it very different from usual still-lifes. Dewing shows the flowers in their natural habitats. Unlike indoor still lifes, which present flowers cut and arranged by humans, "Iris at Dawn" captures the flowers in their purest state. One can sense the growth habits and the life that emanates from the flowers.

Dewing seems to make a point of the contrast between a manipulated still-life and "Iris at Dawn". The flowers appear at varied heights and stages of growth, some still budding while others have fully bloomed.

"Iris at Dawn" demonstrates Dewing's precision, but the painting seems to go beyond pictorial reality.

Dewing painted with the mind of a gardener, utilizing not only her gardening knowledge but also her connection to nature.

"The painting is accurate botanically, but, at the same time, transcends botanical illustration and imbues the work with mystery and a magical presence," MacAdam said.

Dewing creates an interesting hybrid between still-life and landscape in the painting. There is no horizon line, which has the effect of immersing the viewer into the work.

The asymmetry of the composition harkens back to Dewing's longtime affinity for Japanese art. The painting's arbitrary cropping, decorative surface patterning and flattening are very much associated with the Japanese art that Dewing admired in the collections of her early instructors.

The fact that "Iris at Dawn" bridges so many genres made its positioning in the American galleries very difficult. Eventually, "Iris of Dawn" seemed to work best on its own.

To complement the painting, a vase from the same period featuring a similar design and a similarly flattened surface has been placed next to it.

"Iris at Dawn" also provides a historical glance into American sentiments at the turn-of-the-century. Dewing was undoubtedly part of the "arts and crafts" movement that emerged and may have even been affected by the transendentalist revival.

"It says something about what was going on in our culture at that time period," MacAdam commented.

Dewing was certainly not a commissioned artist. Her work was not created for public display, but rather out of her own desire to paint, reflecting her belief in "art for art's sake."

If Maria Dewing's work was so timely and well received, why did she become the lesser-known Dewing?

There are many explanations. She was not a prolific painter and therefore there are far fewer paintings in existence and even fewer in circulation today. Most have ended up in private collections, including "Iris at Dawn," which was sold only recently.

Dewing did not exhibit her work extensively and was therefore not particularly prominent in the public eye. Her work was not highly valued then, but ironically, the rarity of Dewing's work has increased her artistic stock.

"These compositions are seen as quite unusual and original. She is doing something very different, using different optical effects," MacAdam said.

"One thinks of the Impressionists during this period as well. She is doing something very different, using different optical effects. [Unlike the Impressionists] she is interested in portraying individual blossoms. She wants our focus to be on the flowers."