Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Thomas Dewing became a noted figure painter of idealized women, rendered simply with limited palette in a style primarily associated with Tonalism in an era when Impressionism was gaining dominance. Unlike most tonalists who painted landscapes, he adopted that style to figure work in which one color was dominant and reflective and infused the atmosphere as a whole. Many of his figure works were placed in lush green landscapes, but they are mostly decorative with little identification of specific locale. Dewing was also an accomplished painter of multipaneled screens, many of them decorated with Oriental motif influence
Thomas Dewing was also a muralist, whose major piece in that genre was Commerce and Agriculture Bringing Wealth to Detroit, installed since 1900, at the Detroit Savings Bank.
A large bristling man, known for his sarcasm, quarrelsome, and bitter temperament, he created work that was popular in the late 19th century but declined in public acceptance after the Armory Show of 1913 when modernism was introduced to the United States.
He studied at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts and worked briefly as a lithographer. In Albany, New York, he worked as a chalk portraitist, and from 1876 to 1879, studied figure painting at the Academie Julian in Paris under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre.
He married the artist Maria Oakley, a talented painter of figures and flowers, and she often collaborated with him by filling in sparse landscapes behind his figures or flowers. Early in their marriage they lived at East Hampton, Long Island, and he taught at the Art Students League.
Between 1885 and 1902, he and his wife spent summers at the Cornish Art Colony in Cornish, New Hampshire. In 1887, he was elected to the National Academy of Design in New York, and he became a teacher there. In 1889, he won a silver medal at the Paris Exposition.
In 1898, he became a member of the Ten American Painters that included Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir. That group rebelled against the Society of American Artists and in turn, against the strictures of the Academy. In this group, Dewing stood out for not being an impressionist but reportedly joined because he liked "the spirit of tranquility and harmony that the group projected". (Gerdts 178)
From 1891, capitalist Charles Lang Freer played a major role in the career of Dewing by collecting his paintings and also by hiring Dewing to serve as buying agent for Freer's growing collection, now in the Freer Gallery in Washington DC.
The first comprehensive exhibition of Dewing's work was held at The Brooklyn Museum in New York in spring and early summer, 1996.