Visitor Information The Exhibition
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Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Summer, c. 1890. Oil on canvas, mounted on board. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Gift of William T. Evans
The title of this exhibition paraphrases the artist James McNeill Whistler, who in 1880 said, "Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass." Whistler, George Inness, and many American painters in the following decades embraced this notion of apparent immateriality. Using muted colors, blurred contours, and few obvious brushstrokes, they emphasized atmosphere, mystery, and mood in both the subject and handling of their works. This is the art of painting softly.

One writer in 1879 criticized "art of the Whistler sort" as "dim visions of aesthetic phantoms, which suggest various interpretations to different minds." This power of speaking distinctly to each viewer is in fact the strength of painting softly. To experience them fully, we must stand back from the pictures, take time, and allow our own memories and imaginations to play on their themes.