Painter. A figurative specialist, he is known particularly for evocative depictions of languorous, introspective women, depicted singly or in small groups. Inhabiting spare but atmospheric interiors or nebulous gardens, they nearly always dress in long, graceful gowns. These cultured, upper-class beings shun the competitive, activist spirit of industrial and commercial modernity, yet they nevertheless represent contemporary types. Usually no longer young, rarely conventionally pretty, and often cerebral, they involuntarily reveal the pressure of the exterior world they avoid. Building on indirection, internal tension, and paradox, the meaning of such images lingers in uncertainty. Dewing also painted portraits and a few outright allegories, as well as interior decorations. A major figure in establishing tonalism's popularity, he responded to aspects of impressionism and symbolism, as well as to the aesthetic movement, the American Renaissance, and japonisme in forming his distinctive approach. The old masters, particularly Vermeer, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler's example also informed his development.
Born in Boston, Wilmer Dewing chose as a young man to be known as Thomas. He learned lithography and achieved some success with portrait drawings before departing in July 1876 for Paris. There he studied at the Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. He returned to Boston in October of the following year but moved to New York in the autumn of 1880. While executing portraits and murals there, he continued to paint enigmatic works demonstrating mastery of academic figure construction but also an increasingly refined aestheticism. Securing his early reputation, The Days (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1887), inspired by a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem of the same name, depicts in pale tonalities a decorative frieze of idealized young women in an outdoor setting. Suggesting the spirit of late Pre-Raphaelitism, which Dewing had encountered in England while traveling abroad in 1883, the image also prefigures his later use of amorphous landscape environments for figural works. These evolved while he summered from the mid-1880s in the art colony of Cornish, New Hampshire. During the 1890s, as he refined his mature subject matter and style, he also worked in pastel and silverpoint, demonstrating a technical facility that marked also his increasingly distinguished handling of oil. From October 1894 until July of the following year Dewing sojourned abroad for the last time. In London, he met Whistler and intermittently worked alongside him for several months. He then moved to Paris and subsequently rented a house in the impressionist stronghold of Giverny. In 1898 he joined other leading progressives in founding The Ten. From 1905 he summered in a backwoods area of the White Mountains along the state border between Conway, New Hampshire, and Fryeburg, Maine. After the earliest years of the twentieth century, he focused almost exclusively on small-scale, contemplative interiors such as The Necklace (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1907). Within an austere, asymmetrically balanced space, a well-bred if slightly awkward woman lifts a necklace while staring fixedly at a mirror visible only as a frame cut by the edge of the painting. A shimmering, golden aura and exquisite, luxuriant brushwork counterbalance the painting's compositional and psychological edginess. Dewing's productivity declined during the 1920s, as the appeal of his quietist vision succumbed to the clamor of modern styles in art. For several years before his death in New York, poor health precluded painting.