Thursday, August 29, 2013


Abbott Handerson Thayer
Source Nelson and Henry C. White research material
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of John Gellatly

A virgin

Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) was born in Boston to Dr. William Henry Thayer and Ellen Handerson Thayer. After his birth his family moved to Woodstock, Vermont, and in 1855 settled in Keene, New Hampshire.
As a child Thayer developed a love of nature that was encouraged by his close family, which included three sisters, Ellen, Margaret, and Susan. At the age of fifteen he was sent to the Chauncy Hall School in Boston, and while there he met Henry D. Morse, an amateur animal painter. Under Morse's instruction Abbott developed his skill in painting birds and other wildlife and began painting animal portraits on commission.
In 1867 Thayer moved to Brooklyn, New York and attended the Brooklyn Academy of Design where he studied under J. B. Whittaker for two years. In 1868 he began showing his work at the National Academy of Design and enrolled there in 1870, studying under Lemuel Wilmarth.
He met many emerging artists during this period, including his future first wife, Kate Bloede and his close friend, Daniel Chester French. Thayer became part of progressive art circles, showing his work at the newly formed Society of American Artists, while continuing to develop his skill as an animal and landscape painter.
Thayer and Kate Bloede were married in 1875. They moved to Paris and he studied at the cole des Beaux-Arts, first under Henri Lehmann, and then with Jean-Léon Gérome. While in Europe he befriended fellow artists Everton Sainsbury, Thomas Millie Dow, George de Forest Brush, and Dwight Tryon.
His daughter Mary was born in 1876 and his son William Henry in 1878. The family returned to America in 1879 and settled in his parent's home in Brooklyn, where he changed his focus to portraits. After the tragic deaths of William Henry in 1880 and of their second son, Ralph Waldo, in 1881, the family led a migratory existence living in various parts of New England. In 1881 while living in Nantucket they met Emmeline (Emma) Beach (1850-1924) who would become close friends with Abbott and Kate and would be known as "Addie" to the family. In 1883 their son Gerald was born and in 1886 their daughter Gladys was born. In 1887 Thayer settled his family in Keene, New Hampshire, and began teaching a small group of students. Around this time his wife began suffering from severe depression and went to a sanatorium in 1888. She died in 1891 and that fall Thayer married Emma Beach who had helped to care for him and his children during his wife's illness.

Blue Ribbon

Landscape at Fontainebleau Forest

The Favorite Kitten
Images from

He and his second wife spent their remaining years in rural New Hampshire, living and working productively with the three remaining Thayer children, Mary, Gerald and Gladys. Throughout this latter part of his life, among Thayer’s Dublin neighbors was George de Forest Brush, with whom (when they were not quarreling) he collaborated on matters pertaining to camouflage. By his own admission, Thayer often suffered from a condition that today is called bipolar disorder. In his letters, he described it as “the Abbott pendulum,” by which his emotions precariously swung back and forth between the two extremes of (in his words) “all-wellity” and “sick disgust.” This condition apparently worsened as the controversy grew about his camouflage findings (most notably when they were denounced by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt). As he aged, he increasingly suffered from panic attacks (which he called “fright-fits”), nervous exhaustion, and suicidal thoughts, so much so that he was no longer allowed to go out in his boat alone on Dublin Pond. At age 72, Thayer was disabled by a series of strokes, and died quietly at home on May 29, 1921.
Thayer cut a singular figure. A smallish man, 5 feet 7 inches tall, lean and muscular, he moved with a quick vitality. His narrow, bony face, with its mustache and aquiline nose, was topped by a broad forehead permanently furrowed by frown lines from concentration. He began the winter in long woolen underwear, and as the weather warmed, he gradually cut off the legs till by summer he had shorts. Winter and summer he wore knickers, knee-high leather boots and a paint-splotched Norfolk jacket.
His Thoreauesque communion with nature permeated the entire household. Wild animals—owls, rabbits, woodchucks, weasels—roamed the house at will. There were pet prairie dogs named Napoleon and Josephine, a red, blue and yellow macaw, and spider monkeys that regularly escaped from their cages. In the living room stood a stuffed peacock, probably used as a model for a painting in the protective coloration book. A stuffed downy woodpecker, which in certain lights disappeared into its artfully arranged background of black winter twigs and branches, held court in the little library.
Promoting to ornithologists his theory of protective coloration, Thayer met a young man who immediately was adopted as an honorary son. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and though he would become a famous painter of birds, he began as an affectionate disciple. Both men were fascinated with birds. They regularly exchanged skins and Fuertes joined Thayer on birding expeditions. He spent a summer and two winters with the family, joining in their high intellectual and spiritual arguments—the exact interpretation of the Icelandic Sagas—and their rushes to the dictionary or relief globe to settle questions of etymology and geography. On regular walks in the woods, Fuertes summoned birds by whistling their calls—like Thayer, who stood on the summit of Mount Monadnock in the twilight and attracted great horned owls by making a sucking sound on the back of his hand. One owl, it is said, perched on top of his bald head. 

My Children

The Sisters
Current Loc Brooklyn Museum
Source Google Art project

It is difficult to categorize Thayer simply and conclusively as an artist. He was often described in first person accounts as eccentric and mercurial, and there is a parallel contradictory mixture of academic tradition, spontaneity and improvisation in his artistic methods. For example, he is largely known as a painter of “ideal figures,” in which he portrayed women as embodiments of virtue, adorned in flowing white tunics and equipped with feathered angel’s wings. At the same time, he did this using methods that were surprisingly unorthodox, such as purposely mixing dirt into the paint, or (in one instance at least) using a broom instead of a brush to lessen the sense of rigidity in a newly finished, still-wet painting.
He survived with the help of his patrons, among them the industrialist Charles Lang Freer. Some of his finest works are in the collections of the Freer Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Academy of Design, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago. Thayer was also resourceful in his teaching, which he saw as a useful, inseparable part of his own studio work. Among his devoted apprentices were Rockwell Kent, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Richard Meryman, Barry Faulkner (Thayer's cousin), Alexander and William James (the sons of Harvard philosopher William James), and Thayer's own son and daughter, Gerald and Gladys.
In a letter to Thomas Wilmer Dewing (c. 1917, in the collection of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), Thayer reveals that his method was to work on a new painting for only three days. If he worked longer on it, he said, he would either accomplish nothing or would ruin it. So on the fourth day, he would instead take a break, getting as far from the work as possible, but meanwhile instruct each student to make an exact copy of that three-day painting. Then, when he did return to his studio, he would (in his words) "pounce on a copy and give it a three-day shove again". As a result, he would end up with alternate versions of the same painting, in substantially different finished states.
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

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