In 1888, Dewing’s technique and subject matter underwent a small but significant shift. Susan Hobbs notes that he “stopped producing imaginative subjects,” as anything not observed in his paintings dissolved into a dream-like mist. This dissolution was afforded by the change in his technique, including the adoption of loose brushwork and a tonalist palette approach. In 1890, Dewing met the Detroit collector Charles Lang Freer. Freer’s fortune was built on railroad-car fabrication, and a love of fine art had developed over a decade of collecting prints and, increasingly, artifacts of east Asia. His refined personality contrasted starkly with Dewing’s bombastic nature. By the 1890s, Freer had the wealth to acquire major pictures and the newly-constructed home to fill with them. He “plunged into collecting with a quiet desperation,” his private curator recalled [as quoted by Susan Hobbs in The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing: Beauty Reconfigured (1996), p. 18]. Dewing’s fiery personality, as well as his commitment to painting women, which Freer initially abjured, were apparently no barrier to their immediate, long-lasting, and friendly patronage relationship. Dewing, for his part, was profoundly grateful to meet “someone in the world so faithful to me and my art” [as quoted in http://www.asia.si.edu/explore/american/dewing.asp]. Dewing personally advised Freer in the decoration of Freer’s home, and, when the painter later fell on hard times, was buffeted by his employ as a buying agent for Japanese prints and objets d’art as well as prints by James Abbott McNeil Whistler.
Freer also supported Dewing financially in a European trip in 1894. Freer would leave on his own journey – ultimately to east Asia – but the two rendezvoused in Paris in November, where they visited the studio of James Abbott McNeil Whistler. The visit made an impression on all three men: Freer redoubled his interest in Whistler’s work, and later Whistler wrote to Freer, “I like Dewing too very much . . . yesterday afternoon is not readily forgotten in the studio!” [as quoted in Oba (2004), p. 207]. Dewing, for his part, observed in Whistler’s studio the only folding screen Whistler was to create: Blue and Silver: Screen with Old Battersea Bridge (1871-1872, distemper and gold paint on brown paper laid on canvas stretched on back of silk, The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow). Whistler’s love of Japanese style was well-known to both of his visitors, but Oba observes that Whistler, by the 1890s, was combining japonisme with Symbolism, a new development in Whistler’s thinking. In 1893, Whistler illustrated the frontispiece of an edition of poems by his friend, the Stéphane Mallarmé. In 1885, he delivered what became known as the “Ten O’Clock Lecture” at Prince’s Hall in London, concluding with these remarks:
The story of the beautiful is already complete—hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon – and broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai—at the Foot of Fujiyama [as quoted by Oba (2004), p. 209].
Whistler’s line of aesthetic reasoning explicitly connected Western classical ideals with eastern expressions in what Oba has termed “Greco-Japonisme.” The joining of this aesthetic fusion with Symbolist devices and tonalist style is perhaps not fully manifest in Whistler’s own work, but there may be few more clear expressions of it than in the folding screens of Thomas Wilmer Dewing in the years just after he met Whistler.
While Dewing enjoyed Whistler’s company in London from the end of 1894 into the Spring of 1894, Freer was taking a whirlwind tour of the Orient. In the early twentieth century, Freer would amass a collection of Chinese art and antiquities, but in the 1890s his focus was primarily on the arts of Japan. He bought some sixteen Japanese folding screens in 1896.
Susan Hobbs proposes an earlier acquaintance with Japanese-style screens, remarking that “The gold leaf background [of 1878’s The South Wind], unique in Dewing’s oeuvre, may have been inspired by the Japanese screens which were then entering private collections in Boston…The bamboo motif on the South Wind’s frame, which appears to be original, further strengthens the paintings association with Oriental art, a prominent element in Dewing’s mature canvases” [Hobbs (1981), p. 21].
Dewing’s work on Japanese-style folding screens is limited to these years from 1896 and 1899, immediately following these twin trips – Dewing’s to Europe and Freer’s to Japan. Soon after his return, Dewing created a pair of screens that have come to be known as Four Sylvan Sounds, explicitly as decorative furnishings for Freer’s Detroit home. The Four Sylvan Sounds screens were not unveiled until 1897, but Freer was delighted—and so too was his neighbor and business partner, Frank Hecker. Hecker put Dewing immediately to work on another set of screens. For the Hecker screens, Dewing collaborated with his friend Stanford White to produce framing for each panel of the screens. White worked with Dewing on a second group of screens for Hecker shortly thereafter, as well as designing the framing elements of a pair of panels for another project for Freer.
During this period, Dewing also began a third screen project: as opposed to the pair of screens representing a traditional byôbu arrangement, Dewing created a single screen comprising two panels [Oba, (2004), 106]. In Dewing’s lifetime, the pendants were exhibited together as a screen under the title, Folding Screen: Two Panels with Figures – some of Dewing’s other screens and panels were similarly named [Oba, (2004), p. 90-91]. The two constituent panels “may have been begun in 1896, only to be temporarily abandoned as Dewing became more involved in [The Four Sylvan Sounds], and then reworked into a pair in 1899” [Teresa Carbone, American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum: Artists Born by 1876 Volume I (2006), p. 462]. This thesis is supported by the fact that both panels are signed individually, as well as by the more subjective observation that the pictorial space of the two panels does not fit together as smoothly as in other works, such as The Four Sylvan Sounds. Mitsutoshi Oba remarks upon this disjunct as misleading: “If we see the combination of the [two panels] as a single image . . . it looks somewhat awkward compositionally because of the placement of figures” [Oba (2004), 107]. Individually, each panel exhibits Dewing’s characteristic mastery of composition, but together they seem to inhabit a similar but disjointed space. Oba advances the theory that this soft break of space is instead a demonstration of Dewing’s commitment to a Japanese ordering of space between panels, rather than a momentary lapse of western spatial reasoning. “They are meant to be folded for display, thus a continuous scene of each screen is not to be seen as a simple, flat picture” [Ibid.]. Oba emphasizes that the narrative direction of a traditional byôbu would be from right to left, rather than left to right. Beyond that, a flattening of conventional western pictorial space may have been an intentional gesture on Dewing’s part, akin to analogous compositional experiments by Mary Cassatt and Louis Comfort Tiffany [Oba (2004), p. 134].
Whatever their initial genesis, the two panels were certainly joined together as a screen by the end of the century—once more in a Stanford White framing element. The second painting depicted a seated woman with an archaic flute or pipe in similar Grecian robes and executed in consonant verdant hues. The screen may have been commissioned by Freer for his friend, Francis S. Thomas. The two were presented together as a screen in 1923 at the American Art Galleries. The exhibition of “An Important Collection of American Paintings” was “selected by and to be sold by order of the well-known connoisseur Mr. N. E. Montross,” the catalogue reproducing the two works together in a single photograph. The catalogue for the sale described the works as item number 63:
Here is a work of art indeed. Beautifully proportioned, this screen with the young woman in most delicately toned drapery is very beautiful—each girl fits the space splendidly. There is small choice, and they make a composition of great charm—the one faintly warm in tone, the other pearly, even opalescent [Fine American Paintings (1923), no. 63].
The above description suggests that the left panel, featuring the seated figure, is the “faintly warm in tone,” while the present work is slightly “pearly, even opalescent.” The two panels remained together through their 1940 acquisition by Cleveland Museum of Art, where they were displayed under a new title: Music. The left panel features a woman playing a type of flute or pipe, suggesting this allegorical interpretation. Dewing was given to relating his work to music: following Whistler, he sometimes used musical terms to associate his compositions with those of the chamber ensemble; he also frequently depicted women with musical instruments. Indeed, so strong was the association between Dewing’s visual art and music that Steinway & Sons commissioned Dewing to decorate the top of a piano for the White House in 1904 [Oba (2004), p. 64].
In 1968, the Cleveland Museum deaccessioned the left panel, and there was a period when the Cleveland Museum’s panel was listed under the name, Dance. (Interestingly, the work was reproduced under this title in the catalogue of the 1992 exhibition, A Nation’s Legacy: 150 Years of American Art from Ohio Collections—a traveling exhibition that toured Japan). While a case can be made that the two panels were intended as allegorical pendants representing music and dance, we have not substantiated this nomenclature with any evidence. We accordingly defer to the title under which the panel has been listed at the Cleveland Museum in recent years: Music.
While Dewing would make continue to work in his “Grecian-japoniste” mode for many years, the final years of the century represent the sum total of his screens. The brilliance of the present work lies in the aesthetic complexity of this notably simple composition. Oba summarizes Dewing’s broad commitments in these years:
The impact of Japanese art is revealed by such visual devices as pairing of screens, continuous scenes across the paired screens, right-to-left orientation of iconography, and non-illusionistic style. These japoniste elements were combined by Dewing with classical elements: the Arcadian landscapes with mythological female figures in Grecian garments [Oba, (2004) p. v.].
The confluence of these subtle strands of influence, guided by the hand of a master craftsman, make the present work an important and stunningly beautiful example of a rare species of artwork.