After receiving early instruction from a local drawing master in Staffordshire, England, Peter DeWint moved to London in 1802 to take up an apprenticeship with the mezzotint engraver John Raphael Smith. Engraving though was not to be DeWint’s trade, and after a few years he terminated the apprenticeship to become a full-time landscape painter. He was offered lessons by the influential watercolourist John Varley who encouraged DeWint to paint outdoors and introduced him to the patron Dr Thomas Monro, whose informal drawing academy was a meeting place for the esteemed artists of the day. There DeWint was exposed to the latest ideas about contemporary British landscape watercolours and was able to study the works of Thomas Girtin – a major influence on the formation of his style.
In 1810 DeWint was made an associate of the Society of Painters in Water Colours and the following year was elected a full member. Many of his summers were spent painting in Lincoln, and he made frequent sketching tours throughout England and Wales. He was also an energetic teacher and made a comfortable living supplementing his income in this way. John Ruskin, while a student at Oxford, offered the following opinion in Letters addressed to a college friend about DeWint’s merits as a drawing master:
‘[DeWint] is a most ardent lover of truth – hardly ever paints except from nature, attends constantly and effectually to colour and tone, and produces sketches of such miraculous truth of atmosphere, colour and light, that half an hour’s work of his, from nature, has fetched its fifty guineas… but all that he can do for you will be to teach you to make a forcible sketch of an atmospheric effect on simple objects; he smothers all detail and his trees are as like cabbages as anything else.’
The fundamentals of DeWint’s broad, simplifying style, characterised by sweeping washes and a masterly command of tonality, remained constant throughout his career. His predilection for wide, panoramic views of relatively featureless or empty countryside – what the artist’s widow Harriet DeWint described in her Memoir as ‘long, extensive distances’ – can be seen in Dover Castle from the Canterbury Road, a large-scale watercolour typical of the formal and more finished exhibition pieces painted during the last decade of the artist’s life.
The critic for The Spectator, reviewing the 1849 exhibition of the Society of Painters in Water Colours shortly before DeWint’s death, wrote of the painter:
He does not wait for outré and extraordinary effects; but takes plain English nature in her everyday aspect, and by the sheer force of knowledge and skill, he transfers the distinct forms, the vivid sobriety, to his paper.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017