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The Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative (“Because of Her Story”) asks us to consider the stories of notable figures in our history whose achievements have not always received the full appreciation they merit. October is the birth month of one such hidden figure, American artist Maria Oakey Dewing, who was born in New York City on October 27, 1845, a year before the Smithsonian Institution was founded. Her rare and wondrous Garden in May is one of the treasures of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Dewing described herself as a “garden-thirsty soul,” and Garden in May, the largest extant outdoor flower painting by the artist, certainly quenches that thirst, while also offering some food for the soul.
The painting is a total immersion into Dewing’s New Hampshire garden. There is no horizon, hardly a hint of ground, and no lateral framing to this sea of soft hues and dark leaves and stems. It is “all-over” painting decades before the advent of Abstract Expressionism. Much of the color is kept to the surface of the canvas, and while there is little sense of space, the rich textural depth of the drifts of plants and their manner of growth are strikingly evoked. If there is a point of view, it is that of the gardener, on her knees, using her expert hands to untangle the dense greenery. All seems mysterious and uncomposed, a shivering, restless environment filled with sprays of flowers. The artist creates a muted symphony of envelopment for the viewer, bowing and blowing in the wind. There is almost a feeling of being underwater, subject to rhythmic eddies and currents. Dewing wrote about the individual flower as the ultimate abstraction. Here, grouped together, the luminous blossoms offer the possibility of pure self-loss amid the layered shadows.
The small number of paintings by Dewing that have come down to us hovers around two dozen. Why so few? Many have been lost, but many more were simply never painted. In her 20s as an art student, Dewing was known as a maverick of the aesthetic movement, an avant-garde thinker and progressive author, one of the most promising painters of her generation. However, upon her marriage to fellow artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing in 1881, her artistic production more or less ceased for decades while she took on the domestic duties that her period expected of a wife and mother. This unequal, gender-based distribution of professional roles is common to a number of artistic couples in the nineteenth century. Still, while her oeuvre may be small, it is undeniably fervent. As Dewing is reported to have said to the writer Oscar Wilde, “I must paint pictures or die.”
John Davis is the Provost and Under Secretary for Museums, Education, and Research at the Smithsonian.
It’s always a happy surprise to me when the art world combines with the world of sports. And nothing surprised me more than seeing the baseball photographs in American Myth and Memory: David Levinthal Photographs. It made me want to dig deeper and see if he photographed any other iconic sports. I was surprised to find hockey photographs in SAAM’s collection. Though these are not included in the current exhibition, images from his hockey series are on our website.
Hockey is my favorite sport and it sparks a lot of memories for me. Nick Lidstrom was named the captain of the Detroit Red Wings around the time that I really started to get really passionate about the sport and the Red Wings. He was a fun player to watch, even though most wouldn’t call him flashy. He wasn’t a superstar (not in the sense that Ovechkin, or Crosby, or McDavid are). He played a solid game, was competitive, he was perfect. That word was used to describe him so often that his nickname became the Perfect Human. He rarely made a mistake on the ice (or off it). He was this calm cool and collected defenseman. I remember a game where he got a penalty and I could hear the collective gasp of people around me, because that just didn’t happen.
It’s all these things that made me look at this photograph is that Lidstrom isn’t in focus. His face is turned inward, his number is blurred though a keen eye can tell it’s a 5. Even Red Wings is blurred out on his helmet. But the viewer, and I, know it’s him because part of his name is in focus. It’s hard to miss. To me it’s a bit ironic that his name is what’s in focus, because it was never about him. He played for the team, the logo on the front, rather than his name on the back.
I think having his name in focus is a great way to recognize his accomplishments now. He’s the greatest defenseman in Red Wings history and possibly in NHL history. He’s a four-time Stanley Cup winner, 12 time All Star, 7 time Norris trophy winner. A member of the Triple Gold Club. I don’t know for sure why David Levinthal chose to highlight Lidstrom in the way that he did, but I appreciate the recognition.
As a hockey fan you always want to see that people recognize the talent of your players. I think that Levinthal’s hockey series highlights a wide range of talent from an incredible era in hockey and a variety of teams. It’s great to see that hockey isn’t forgotten to America’s favorite past time, especially with the end of baseball season approaching (though we hope the Nats can extend it a little longer). We hope with the start of hockey season, you also take the time to explore artworks online. They might just bring back some of your favorite memories.
The exhibition American Myth and Memory: David Levinthal Photographs remains on view through October 14, 2019.
Kari Jones is video assistant at SAAM. Link to the original article here.