Published: June 19, 2001
Maria Dewing’s Flower Power
Works by a Nineteenth Century American Woman Gain Prominence at Museums and at Auction
By Daniel Grant
There are some clear benefits for artists marrying other artists. For one thing, art is an approved activity (not needing to be justified) and each partner may receive encouragement and in-house criticism. Unfortunately, such pairings may also occasionally lead to competitiveness and jealousy or, most commonly, someone having to take a backseat. Historically, it has just as often been true that the husband’s art has taken precedence with the wife subordinating her work or career or both.
However, in the past few decades, new attention has been cast on the careers of Marguerite Zorach (painter wife of sculptor William Zorach), Sally Michel (painter wife of Milton Avery), Bernarda Bryson Shahn (painter wife of Ben Shahn) and Suzy Frelinghuysen (painter wife of George L.K. Morris), as well as on a number of other artists who happened to marry male artists. Sometimes, recognition tends to come late — often posthumously.
Add to the list Maria (ma-RYE-ah) Oakey Dewing (1845-1927), who is best known as a painter of indoor floral arrangements nature and outdoor flowerbeds, and who, in 1881, married Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938), an Impressionist figure painter whose career soon overshadowed hers. He gained renown and historical importance as one of the founding members of The Ten, the band of American Impressionist painters who exhibited their work in group shows in the 1890s and early 1900s, while she confined herself to flower painting, which at the time was considered strictly for women, according to Dr. Susan A. Hobbs, former curator of American Art at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Hobbs is currently working on a catalogue raisonne of Maria Dewing’s work). Part of her contribution to the marriage was painting floral backgrounds for several of his works.
Fortune now seems to be shining more brightly on her in the wake of her second million dollar price at auction last May at Sotheby’s, when her 1891 oil Poppies and Italian Mignonette sold for $1,105,750 (est $1/1,500,000). In May of last year, her only other time at auction, the 1901 oil ”Rose Garden” set a record for her work, $1,160,750, well above the $2/300,000 estimate. These are both outdoor pictures, of which Dewing produced relatively few, and ”Rose Garden” at 24 by 40½ inches is a relatively large work for the artist (”Poppies,” on the other hand, is a more typical 23 by 17-inches).
These prices top those of her husband, whose highest auction price came this past May at Christie’s when ”The Music Lesson” sold for $721,000, ahead of the $4/600,000 estimate. Other significant prices for his work have been $314,000 for ”Woman in Black: Portrait of Maria Oakey” at Christie’s in 2000 and $288,500 for ”Lady Listening” at Christie’s in 1997.
Hobbs stated that there was a unique confluence of factors that contributed to the prices of Maria Dewing’s work at auction. They’re showy, decorative, in great condition, in eight-inch Stanford White frames and absolutely fresh to the market, which counteracts the fact that her work is not so well-known and doesn’t have a track record at auction.
Another contributing element may be the fact that she was not a highly prolific artist, as the catalogue raisonné currently includes 35 paintings and approximately 20 drawings. She got sidetracked with domestic duties and her child, Hobbs said. She may have also believed that there was little outside interest in her work.
”Poppies and Italian Mignonette,” for instance, was painted as a present for Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit railroad car building magnate who was Thomas Dewing’s primary patron. Maria had hoped that he would become a patron of her work, too, but he never did.
Perhaps, she created more, but some works may have been discarded or allowed to deteriorate (some have holes) after 1913, when Modernism was formally introduced to the United States through the Armory Show. The reputations of both she and Thomas Dewing declined significantly. Her long-time New York City dealers, William and Robert Macbeth, returned to her a number of her unsold canvases in the 1910s, and Smith College deaccessioned one of her paintings ”Lilies, Larkspur & Foxgloves,” 1894 for $6 in a fit of housecleaning in 1947 through the New York City-based Kende Gallery (auction house) in the Gimbals Department Store.
Most of the sales in her lifetime were for portraits of friends and family members. As a result, those who appreciated her work have always been select group.
William Merritt Chase, a contemporary, called her flower paintings inimitable, and ”Rose Garden” was sold by a retired art historian, Jennifer Martin, who had written scholarly articles about Dewing’s work. A number of museums have quietly acquired her work, among them the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, Hood Museum of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Every calendar produced by the Smithsonian for the past 15 years has included her painting ”Garden in May,” Hobbs said. That 1895 oil painting has gained icon status.
Dewing’s paintings do not come up for sale very often, either at auction or through dealers, and no gallery currently represents her work. In the mid-1990s, the Leslie Hindman Gallery, a Chicago auction house subsequently bought by Sotheby’s, sold Dewing’s ”Roses in a Vase” for $9,500 (est $1,500-2,500) to a dealer who subsequently sold the work to a private collector for an undisclosed sum. The Addison Gallery purchased the 1899 oil ”Irises at Dawn” in 1999 from a private dealer for $140,000. Hobbs noted that private dealers sold three of the artist’s paintings of flowers in vases within the past five years in the five figures. At least one went for around $80,000.
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