Iris at Dawn (Iris)
Oil on canvas
Purchased through the Miriam and Sidney Stoneman Acquisition Fund and the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W'18 Fund; P.999.11
Originally a figure painter, Maria Oakey Dewing became one of the most accomplished and admired painters of flowers at the turn of the century. She painted Iris at Dawn in her luxuriant flower garden in Cornish, New Hampshire. There, she and her husband, the painter Thomas Wilmer Dewing, figured prominently in the artistic and social life of the Cornish art colony during the summers of 1885 to 1903. Maria Dewing’s most original creations were her outdoor still lifes, which she began to produce in 1891; Iris at Dawn is one of the few surviving examples of these compositions, characterized by their lack of horizon line and close vantage point, which elicit in the viewer the sensation of being immersed in a flowerbed. By portraying the iris in various stages of bloom and in its natural habitat— rather than in a tabletop arrangement—Dewing accentuates the plant’s vitality and distinctive growth habits. She abhorred, for instance, the artificiality of the Dutch still-life tradition, which featured rare and exotic varieties that would never be found growing together or blooming at the same time. She believed instead that a painter of flowers must know the subject firsthand by engaging in a “long apprenticeship in the garden.” While remaining faithful to nature, Dewing aimed to avoid “mere representation” and instead engage in “the art of picture-making.” Her severe cropping of the image draws our eyes to the two-dimensional surface of the painting, revealing her awareness of Japanese design principles. Following in the tradition of her former teacher, John La Farge (who collected Japanese prints), she imbued her floral compositions with a poetic, almost mysterious quality suggestive of larger themes such as the transience of life and the hope of renewal.
Last Updated: 4/17/09