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When midcentury New York modernists staked their claim to the international dominance of painting, they did so with personas that were aggressively, boorishly—they claimed heroically—male. In retrospect, the need to demonstrate that America’s creative types weren’t mincing sissies proves quite comical, but the prehistory of U.S. modernism reveals the roots of AbEx insecurities: The Freer’s “Choice Spirits” show exposes Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Dwight William Tryon as the sort of turn-of-the-century pantywaists who gave refinement and sensitivity a bad name. Tryon’s cool, misty landscapes are less to be looked at than basked in, while Dewing’s pictures of nymphs lounging in mossy voids offer dewy prototypes of the conventions of soft-focus pornography: Whether imagined as tantalizingly pre- or dreamily post-coupling, Dewing’s phantasmic women seem ever to hover in the haze of a barely absent act of coition. Stanford White’s gilded and silvered architectural frames are so massive that they aid the studious connoisseur by obliterating the world outside, and they’re so gorgeous and well-matched that they assist the interior decorator in rendering their contents irrelevant. Curator Lee Glazer will no doubt explicate the cast of mind that made the museum’s patrons more susceptible than today’s viewers to the charms of such breathtakingly prissy items in “Thomas Dewing, Dwight Tryon, and the Aesthetic Ensemble, 1892-1902,” a lecture to be given at 6 p.m. at the Freer Gallery, Meyer Auditorium, 12th & Jefferson Dr. SW. FREE. (202) 357-3200. (Glenn Dixon)