Charles Melville Dewey: A forgotten master of classic tonalism

Editorial Staff Art

November 2009 | Of all the great disappearing acts in American art history, the tonalist artist Charles Melville Dewey’s is one of the most complete and inexplicable. Few artists of the period received more glowing notices from critics or were more widely admired in elite art circles, only to have left so little in the way of a footprint. Like the tonalist movement, of which he was a leading representative, the man and his art virtually vanished after 1940. Today, it is rare to come upon his beautifully crafted and exquisite early paintings, and while a number of his late works are in major museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, they are rarely, if ever, on display. Dewey endowed the tonalist style with classic form, a technical finesse, and an indwelling feeling second to none. His oils and watercolors display a consistency of vision and refinement—full of glittering nuances—rarely equaled in the work of his contemporaries.

Born in Lowville, New York, to a farming family, Dewey is believed to have suffered from a long childhood illness, during which he read widely and developed a romantic attachment to nature. His family did not support his artistic streak, so he struggled in his student years, working as a janitor to pay for his art training. He first attended the National Academy of Design in New York in 1869 and continued to do so, off and on, until 1876, the year he first exhibited there. (His lifelong friendship with Albert P. Ryder (1847-1917) probably dates from 1870 when Ryder entered the National Academy school.) He studied in Paris with Carolus-Duran for two winters, 1876 to 1877 and 1877 to 1878, where he was friendly with John Singer Sargent; and then returned to New York in 1878 and opened a studio. By 1880 he was identified by Scribner’s Monthly, along with Bruce Crane (1857-1933)  and J. Francis Murphy (1853-1921), as an artist on the rise.1 He was made a member of the insurgent Society of American Artists in 1881—then taking on the New York art establishment represented by the National Academy—a sure indication of his high standing in the eyes of the most progressive American artists of the day, many of whom had recently returned from study in Europe.

Dewey’s A Pool in the Meadows of about 1882 (Fig. 3), shown at the Society of American Artists in 1883, displays a deep affinity for the rural subject matter and intimate focus that began to characterize American tonalism in the early 1880s. Influenced by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and the aesthetic movement, A Pool in the Meadows is superbly balanced and full of patterns, especially in the oddly shaped clouds and the cart path formed by elongated patches of bare earth. The exquisitely matched green tones in the apple trees vibrate and dance on the canvas with great warmth and charm. Though broadly brushed, there is enough eye-catching detail, especially the lush meadow flowers and grasses and the scintillating reflections in the water, to draw the eye into the composition, evoking the moisture laden and fragrant air of spring. Dewey’s popularity in Boston art circles is attested to by a showing of his work at the Doll and Richards Gallery in 1882 and the inclusion of A Pool in the Meadows in a loan exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1883.2

Another work of the 1880s, Afternoon Shadows, captures the enchanting quality of late afternoon sunlight near the shore, probably at East Hampton, New York, where Dewey sometimes painted in these years (Fig. 4). His handling of the paint shows a heightened refinement and delicacy, along with a capacity to capture the most evanescent nuances of natural light. On the Marshes, Long Island, of about 1890, a grisaille on wood, is a technical tour de force that displays both his expressive brushwork to great advantage and his ability, within the narrow scope of a monochromatic palette, to create a scene sparkling with luminous lighting effects and lush paint textures (Fig. 5). In 1886 Dewey moved his residence and studio to New York’s Chelsea Hotel. Around this time he married one of his students, Julia Henshaw (c. 1861-1928), a painter of genre and still-life subjects, and the couple maintained a studio at the hotel for the rest of their lives.

Dewey’s fondness for intimate, low-toned, and feeling-filled canvases was duly noted in a catalogue of the paintings owned by Thomas B. Clarke (1848-1931)—one of the great collectors of tonalist paintings of the day—and exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1891. The author wrote:

He early became known as a truthful delineator of familiar phases of American landscape, and especially of those scenes along the edges of the sea where tidal moisture enriches nature, and the constant atmospheric changes lend her aerial variety. His sympathy is with the riper developments of color, and some of his most successful efforts have been in subjects seized upon at the decline of day, and especially at the season of the passing year when Indian summer lingers in drowsy hazes over field and forest made splendid by the first frosts.3

The rising status of Dewey in the American art world was heralded by the inclusion of four of his landscapes in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, two loaned by William T. Evans (1843-1918), another major early collector of tonalist works. A reviewer in the New York Times observed:

Perhaps of all the landscapists in the United States rooms Charles Melville Dewey shows the most interesting canvases, as indicating a departure as individual and as valuable as that of the Barbizon painters. In these calm and lovely stretches of land and water, in this union of truth and mystery, of exquisite drawing and atmo­­­­spheric breadth, of tender values and luminous color, is found an effort toward the beauty and poetry of nature that is neither hysterical nor sentimental, crude nor brutal, but quiet, sane, and intense, with the promise of becoming an enduring element in American art.4

Return of the Hay Boats, one of the works in the exhibition (Fig. 6), shows the influence of impressionism, but Dewey’s brushwork is carefully modulated in strict horizontal patterns, creating an overall atmospheric envelope that saturates and unites the scene. The painting was exhibited several times thereafter, including at the annual international art exhibition in Munich in 1895, where it “attracted the most favorable notice from foreign critics.”5

In A Quiet Pond (Fig. 7) Dewey demonstrates his ability to bring a full range of dazzling techniques to the subtle watercolor medium. Soft-edged tonal forms are fluidly contrasted with harder edged details, especially in the grasses and meadow flowers, while highlights and evanescent watery reflections are produced by actually removing pigment to expose the paper ground. The dramatic cloud line above the sunset horizon adds both a graphic compositional element—unifying and dramatizing the complex design—while serving as a backdrop to emphasize the natural forms of the trees and the palpable feel of the atmosphere.

Sunset After the Rain (Fig. 2) is an example of how Dewey could take what in lesser hands might be standard post-Barbizon imagery and imbue it with expressive character and grace. The narrow format emphasizes the vertical forms of the trees and the animating choreography of trunks and limbs. As a reviewer in the New York Times wrote about an exhibition at the Kraushaar Galleries in 1898: “Mr. Dewey’s attitude toward nature is always contemplative and grave. He chooses the pensive moments of the day for his most intimate study, and the result is synthetic—every detail contributes to reproduce the actual impression, the precise instant, that in nature is never permitted to linger.”6 Another pensive moment is found in Twilight Reverie (Fig. 8), which has all the elements of a classic tonalist sunset landscape: a strong silhouetted recessional row of trees, passages of sumptuous green that emerge from the foreground shadows, and an inescapable feeling of silence.

A growing mania for the moonlight landscapes of Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) after 1900, not to mention those by Dewey’s close friend Ryder, may well have influenced him along similar romantic lines. Golden Moonlight (Fig. 11) is certainly evocative of both Blakelock and Ryder, but the way Dewey handles the paint verges on complete abstraction. His versatility and virtuosity allowed him to endow prevailing trends and modes with an artistry of deep emotion—as described by a critic in 1901: “Each one…has the same inner charm, one that plainly springs from the artist’s individuality, yet each has its own kindly and poetic song to sing, without sentimentality or gush, even and self-assured.”7

If Dewey was drawn to visionary evocations along the lines of Blakelock and Ryder, his artistry captured subtleties rarely touched on by others. Writing about an exhibition at the Louis Katz Art Galleries in 1907, one reviewer commented, “Mr. Dewey is not a realist or a literal painter of things as they are, but an idealist and brooder over the affects of color on the mind.”8 A year later, in 1908, Dewey’s one-man show at the Macbeth Gallery (the most important dealer in American art of the day), garnered additional praise. The New York Times described the show as “one to arrest the attention of such lovers of art as hold that the confused spectacle of nature should be interpreted and explained with clear intelligence as well as with a deep and intimate sense of beauty. Nothing is more marked in Mr. Dewey’s work than its intellectual force.” The reviewer ended with a salute, “that one of the most important and original masters of our American landscape school not only continues to fulfill the promise of his earlier work, but is producing from year to year work of increasing power and beauty.”9

By the closing years of the decade, like many of his contemporaries, Dewey was focusing on late evening, night, and dawn-subjects in which the limited lighting conditions tested the finest tonalists to explore low-toned color and symbolic form as never before. Moonlit Reverie (Fig. 9) is an example of the enchanting dreamscapes he painted at this time, the popularity of which led to his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy of Arts and Letters) in New York, as well as medals at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis. In 1907 a writer in Harper’s Monthly praised Dewey’s landscapes as “peaceful scenes with quiet pools, whispering trees, and pensive skies bathed in tender light.”10 Major works by the artist were being acquired by museums at this time, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum.11

Moonlit Pasture, South Dartmouth, Massachusetts (Fig. 10), displays Dewey’s extraordinary ability to use a broad range of radiant greens, blues, purples, and creamy silvery whites—reminiscent of the cool colors of El Greco (1541-1614)—within the muted spectrum of a moonlit landscape. Sumptuous color, sensuous textures, and a fluid balance of values executed with bravura brushwork give a vital richness to what in lesser hands might have been a leaden pastoral nocturne. Such tours de force prompted the New York Times in 1912 to say that Dewey’s art “brings with it a profundity of thought and feeling and a perfection of science that gives it a unique place in the painting of modern times.”12 By 1916, after comparing him favorably with George Inness (1825-1894) and Blakelock, the Times, predicted: “The time will come when museums will fight for him also and put their corporate hands deep into their corporate pockets to acquire his finest works.”13 If anything, Dewey only became more daring and expressive in his use of pigment as he aged, often troweling on layers upon layers of paint until he achieved an energized surface that any modernist would relish.

For the art lover, Dewey’s work, and tonalism in general, offered a kind of mystic consolation, a haunting mix of visually vibrant color in otherwise peaceful scenes of stillness and solitude. This universal sensibility provided spiritual uplift to the reformist generation born between 1840 and 1865, who entered old age during World War I, and whose lives flickered out in the 1920s and 1930s, taking with them the individual and corporate memories of tonalism’s vital contribution to the development of modernism in American art.

1 “All three men are just now rising rapidly out of the ordinary ranks of artists”; see “Culture and Progress,” Scribner’s Monthly, vol. 20 (June 1880), p. 313.  2 Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Eighth Annual Report, for the year ending Dec. 31, 1883 (Boston, 1884), p. 27.  3 Catalogue of the Thomas B. Clarke Collection of American Pictures (Philadelphia, 1891), p. 41. The catalogue was probably written by the artist William A. Coffin (1855-1925).  4 “Art at Chicago,” New York Times, June 23, 1893. The review is signed E.S.C..  5 William A. Coffin, Catalogue of American Paintings Belonging to William T. Evans (American Art Galleries, New York, 1900), p. 29.  Return of the Hay Boats was also exhibited at the Lotos Club in New York in 1899, 1905, and 1914; and in the Comparative Exhibition of Native and Foreign Art, held at the American Fine Arts Society in New York in 1904.  6 “Mr. Dewey’s Pictures,” New York Times, April 9, 1898.  7 “Paintings by Dewey,” ibid., April 17, 1901.  8 “Tender Tones of Dawn and Sunset,” ibid., February 12, 1907.  9 “Art at Home and Abroad,” ibid., November 29, 1908.  10 Quoted in Doreen Bolger Burke, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume III (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1980), p. 112.  11 Mantle Fielding, Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers (1926; rev. ed, Apollo Book, Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1983), p. 236.  12 “News and Notes of the Art World,” New York Times, April 28, 1912.  13 “Art at Home and Abroad,” ibid., April 16, 1916.

DAVID ADAMS CLEVELAND is the author of A History of American Tonalism, 1880-1920, to be published by Hudson Hills Press in December.