An Interview with Susan Hobbs, Director of The Thomas Wilmer Dewing Catalogue Raisonné and Former Curator of American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art
By Zoe Fortin
More than two decades of research, a thousand pages, and over six hundred color illustrations. Susan Hobbs’ Thomas Wilmer Dewing Catalogue Raisonné is impressive, to say the least. A hardcover two-volume set, Beauty into Art was published in 2018 by Yale University Press. Featuring a comprehensive biography and engaging, narrative commentaries, the catalogue raisonné provides new research and a much-needed reference on the work of Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851–1938). We chatted with Susan Hobbs about her journey as a curator, why she first fell in love with Dewing’s work, the amazing discoveries she made while working on this publication, and more.
When did you first become interested in Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s work? What caught your attention?
Not long after my graduate studies, I became the first curator of American Art at the Freer Gallery of Art, which is part of the Smithsonian institution and located on the National Mall in Washington, DC. At the time, the collection was a sleeping giant. The Freer Gallery of Art holds this incredible collection of artworks by Dewing but, somehow, almost no work had been done on him. There was no research, apart from a checklist, which is even more surprising knowing that most of these drawings and paintings had been purchased directly from the artist by Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919).
From a visual perspective, I was initially drawn to the artist because of the quality of his work and the unusual colors and textures. Thomas Wilmer Dewing is a tonalist more than an impressionist, but his work also includes a little surrealism, which gives it a bit of a modernist feel. The Freer Gallery is home to James McNeill Whistler’s (1834-1903) masterpiece of interior decorative mural art, The Peacock Room (1876-1877). I very much see Dewing as an American disciple of Whistler, so I found it surprising that his work had not been studied with greater attention.
How did your research progress after that initial interest?
1996 was a breakthrough year. Along with Dr. Barbara Dayer Gallati, then Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at The Brooklyn Museum, I curated the first comprehensive exhibition of works by Thomas Wilmer Dewing. It was first presented at The Brooklyn Museum and then traveled to the National Museum of American Art and to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The last stop in Detroit was particularly interesting: Charles Freer was based in Detroit for most of his life, so it made sense for the exhibition to travel to Detroit. In addition, the collector Richard Manoogian, who lived near Detroit, was a generous benefactor of the exhibition. At the time, Jonathan Boos worked very closely with Richard Manoogian, as a curator and an advisor to the Manoogian Collection. It must have been around that time that we met, as Jonathan helped facilitate the exhibition catalogue on behalf of the Manoogian Collection.
It’s been over 20 years since the Brooklyn Museum exhibition catalogue. How have things changed? What’s new in this publication?
Funnily enough, Jonathan is the one who told me we needed new digital photography for this catalogue raisonné. And I listened! So that’s the first major change since the 1996 publication. Back then, the printed colors weren’t quite what they should be. But now the technology is lightyears ahead of what it used to be and, in the new catalogue raisonné, the colors are as correct as they can be with current techniques. It was a huge undertaking, but it went very smoothly: we went through five different corrections, four in the U.S. and one in China, where the catalogue was printed. Greens are particularly challenging, but I’m proud to say that I think we got it. For some works, we had to re-use older materials but for most of the works, we have new digital photography and you are looking at the correct colors. This particular aspect makes it a very useful tool for years to come.
Tell us about the works that are included. Were there any you did not know about when you were working on the retrospective in 1996?
Many! There are a substantial number of works we did not know about at the time of the exhibition organized by The Brooklyn Museum. For the catalogue raisonné, we advertised in a Detroit newspaper to announce the research and collectors came forward, which was really fantastic. Some of them are now safe and beautifully installed and, beyond the catalogue raisonné, that’s also an important part of the legacy this research will leave for future generations. The Lute (1903), for example, is one of the paintings that emerged after the 1996 exhibition. Someone sent me a note through the mail out of the blue and the work is now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Unfortunately there are also works that we were looking for that we did not find, despite our best efforts.
The other wonderful aspect of this publication is the fact that we were able to compile photographs from the artist’s own albums that had never been published in the past. When the research seriously started, we had to set up a 501(c)(3) to be able to secure funding and an assistant. It all started with my wonderful editor, the well-known and meticulous Fronia W. Simpson, who recommended Lucia|Marquand to produce the book. Ryan Polich was our remarkable designer at Lucia|Marquand. With their support came the Smithsonian’s support. Then Adrian Lucia, a partner at Lucia|Marquand, introduced the project to Patricia Fidler at Yale University Press, which is really the premiere publisher for catalogues raisonné so I am truly honored they came on board. It was not a linear path, but it was a beautiful one, and, with the help of project manager Shoshanna Abeles, I feel so satisfied that the publication is a complete account of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s work.
It’s obviously impossible to summarize decades of research and a thousand pages in one sentence. But let’s give it a try: is there one thing you wish all art history enthusiasts knew about Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s work?
People might see his body of work as part of the turn of the century, as typical, traditional pictures of women. They’re not. There is this wonderful quote by Dewing: painting should be “just sour enough to save it.” And that truly summarizes his work. He always did something slightly off-putting and puzzling, a little off balance, a little disjointed. Edmund C. Tarbell’s (1862-1938) paintings, for example, are equally beautiful but don’t have that mystery and complexity, and I think that is what gives Dewing’s artworks a lasting interest.
Cover image: Inside fold in Susan Hobbs’ Thomas Wilmer Dewing Catalogue Raisonné.