Beauty in the Household

Author Maria Oakey Dewing
Author Name Variants Miss Oakey; M.R.O. Dewing; Mrs. T. W. Dewing
Publication New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882.
Link to Text$b261599
Genres Textbook, Advice Literature
Keywords Domestic Science, Fine Arts, Women’s Work & Culture
Contributing State New York
Research Notes  
Digital Source Notes  

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Shelby Narike

Tulane University, December 2015

In Beauty in the Household, Maria Oakey Dewing gives advice on everything from selecting, designing,and beautifying the home to hosting and decorating for social events. She covers dressing one’s family and house staff, culturing oneself, parenting one’s children, and finding happiness. Dewing shows housewives and mothers that a beautiful house hold is attainable and attempts to instruct her readership on exactly how to attain it. She believes aesthetic surroundings are essential to one’s well being. Throughout Beauty in the Household, Dewing incorporates her background in fine arts with her experience in housekeeping and domestic science to illustrate how to create a useful, beautiful, and peaceful home.Maria Richards Oakey was born on October 27, 1845 in New York City to an affluent family (“Dewing”53-54). Trained as an artist at Cooper Union School of Design for Women and the National Academy of Design, she was a successful painter best known for her floral still lifes (Burke et al.419).Her work was displayed in important exhibitions through the 1870s and 1880s(420).Figural work and portraits dominated Dewing’s art in the 1870s; the 1880s sparked a shift in her focus towards still lifes. This shift might have been influenced by her marriage in 1881 to Thomas Wilmer Dewing, a prominent American figure painter (Burke et al. 420). One source posits that Dewing changed her focus so as to protect her husband from competition (“Dewing”54). Another suggests she felt couldn’t compete with Thomas in his field of art (Chew). Either way, shedid notcomeback to figure painting until later on in her life (Burke et al.420).Dewing was also an accomplished writer who was well-known for her books Beauty in Dress (1881) and Beauty in the Household(1882).She began writing various articles on painting for the American Magazine of Art in 1915(Burke et al.420).Dewing died in New York City on December 13, 1927 at eighty-twoyears of age (“Dewing”54). Beauty in the Household comprises eleven chapters with titles such as “A Chapter on Color,” “A Few Words on Form,” “The Drawing Room,” “The Nurseries,” and “The Small Apartment,” and includes many examples of suggested household décor rendered in Dewing’s own pen-and-ink drawings. Its content is both practical and philosophical. In her introduction, for example, Dewing reflects on the tension between idealized artistic vision and practical necessity, arguing that “people rarely expect enough of life, have too little faith in themselves or others, too little courage in seeking the ideal and beautiful in their surroundings” (5). Her advice emphasizes simplicity, comfort, and health over expensive ornamentation. Still, at least one contemporaneous reviewer found that she “makes the mistake that a great many others have made in insisting too urgently on luxurious surroundings. . . . We cannot all of us have stained-glass panels in our kitchen-doors” (“Beauty in the Household”316). Dewing tries to offer diverse suggestions for different levels of income, but it is clear that her intended audience is middle-and upper-class women (she mentions the working class only when discussing household staff). Even her less expensive suggestions would be unattainable for most.The inclusion of Beauty in the Household in Women’s Literary Department at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair is both fitting and noteworthy. Though its author was outspoken about the importance of women in domestic roles, she was successful in her own professional right as an artist and writer.Dewing understood that women are as intellectually capable as men; however, she believed it essential that they fill and take pride in the roles of mother and housekeeper.Housewives of her time could feel credited and empowered by reading Beauty in the Household, which gives value and purpose to housekeeping and decorative craft as true art forms. Though readers today may question Dewing’s prioritization of housework above all else and regret the professional sacrifices she made for her husband, we should also note that she was an independent woman of many professional accomplishments. Her book gives advice on being a dutiful housewife and keeping a beautiful house; however, her career simultaneously exemplifies that being an independent and professional woman is attainable.

Works Cited

“Beauty in the Household.” The Literary World: A Fortnightly Review of Current Literature, vol. 13, no. 19., Hames and Company, 1882, p. 31 [316].,

Burke, Doreen Bolger, et al. In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement.Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986, pp.419 420., Pursuit of Beauty Americans and the Aesthetic Movement#page/n419.

Chew, Elizabeth. “Maria Oakey Dewing.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. 15 Nov. 2015.

“Dewing, Maria Oakey.”A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts, edited by Carol Kort and Liz Sonneborn, Facts on File Inc., 2002, pp. 53-54. Google Books,