By William Kloss
The title of this essay suggests three distinct subjects in Abbott Thayer’s art, the best known of which today is surely figure painting. His highly regarded portraits were an important source of income, but it is his ideal female figures, singly or accompanied by children, that are most closely associated with his name. However, Thayer’s art is more diverse and rich than that suggests, and in his own day his collectors equally valued his landscapes. As a landscape painter Thayer stands in an altogether different light—the outdoor light where he painted the un-peopled countryside he loved. There is also the specialized category of camouflage paintings, often demonstration pieces that were derived from his acute quasi-scientific observations in nature, and which he then applied to military camouflage. While nearly lost to history, his admirers could not have been ignorant of this mostly non-commercial third subject, with which he was increasingly preoccupied for the last three decades of his life.
Since Abbott Thayer’s art is viewed incompletely today, it may help to begin with the subject of camouflage and then relate it to his other painting subjects. It developed from his independent observations on protective coloration in nature, beginning in 1892 and published in an 1896 paper where he demonstrated the principle of countershading; animal coloration, he observed, was usually darker where lit by the sun and lighter in shadow, visually canceling the effects of shadow and making animals less visible and better concealed in their natural environment. Concealing coloration and his related theory and demonstration of disruptive coloration, which disrupts the animal’s body outline to further meld with its surroundings, led to Thayer’s proposals for effective military camouflage both for uniforms and for warships.
This profound absorption in the rhythms and aesthetics of nature raises key questions: Why was Thayer so deeply involved with the natural world, and how did it affect his art? He was raised in Keene, New Hampshire, near Mount Monadnock, a region he was drawn back to throughout his life despite nearly twenty years of study and work in New York and Paris. As a child his earliest paintings were watercolors of animals, and he was a trapper and a “bird crazy” student of Audubon’s Birds of America. His bedrock ideal was Transcendentalism—God’s immanence in nature—and it was almost innate, confirmed by Emerson’s ardent affirmation that “within these plantations of God . . . the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” That he would paint the New England landscape was inevitable.
Thayer’s early training in New York at the Brooklyn Art School and the National Academy of Design was followed by four years of study in Paris and travel in France and Germany. In 1879, at the age of 30, he settled in New York City, where he developed a notable reputation among his fellow artists, and by 1883 he was chosen president of the Society of American Artists.
During these same years, however, the death of two infant sons and the onset of his wife Kate’s illness (diagnosed as melancholia, but recently speculated as tuberculosis) and her subsequent commitment to a sanatorium were more critical in determining Thayer’s later personal and artistic path. He himself suffered from debilitating mood swings (he called it “the Abbott pendulum”) and, although it is unclear how early he experienced them, they must have intensified his gradual withdrawal from urban society. After his wife died in 1891, he married Emma Beach, a close friend and personal advisor to the family, who had been caring for the Thayer children since Kate fell ill. In 1901 Abbott and Emma moved to a rural retreat near Dublin, New Hampshire, in the very shadow of his beloved Mount Monadnock.
His retreat to this rigorous environment also had a physical motivation. Tuberculosis, recently identified as a disease, was feared (Thayer was afflicted by “oceans of hypochondria”), and the accepted treatment was fresh mountain air. The entire Thayer family now lived in an uninsulated house with no electricity, running water or indoor privy, and no heat other than fireplaces and wood stoves. In fact, the family habitually slept outdoors year-round in simple lean-tos erected in the woods surrounding the house.
As a landscape painter Thayer’s feeling for simplified design is striking. Working out of doors, the spare élan of his brushwork in many of these works is consonant with the unbroken snowfields and crisp bare wintry branches that are common in his Monadnock paintings. It is typically expressive, masterfully adapted to the varied subjects, and Thayer expertly recreates the natural light of each place. In his excellent landscape watercolors, Thayer’s calligraphic brushwork is memorable. It should go without saying that his study of animal coloration, and the conclusions that he drew from it, went hand in hand with his landscape painting excursions.
Winter, Monadnock is a watercolor with gouache and chalk painted circa 1900. It is a casual view of scattered trees in the snow at the edge of a swampy gray-brown forest. There is no sky, but the forest at the top of the picture is a backdrop for the sparse green foliage of the foreground. The pervasive aura of the painting, however, resides in the blue shadows that dapple the snow in impulsive, expressive patches and extensions held in their place by scattered sketchy dark strokes evoking barren bush limbs. The brush moves in quick, independent strokes that often change direction. The ceaseless movement of the shadows suggests not just forest shadows (sometimes even footprints) but cloud shadows and even wing-shapes. These blue forest murmurs are suggestive and evocative, not literally representative.
Blue Jays in Winter is a study for Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. It is quite comparable to Winter, Monadnock but it is a didactic piece that shows the blue jays on a foreground bush where the violet blue of the jays blends with the same hue of the shadows on the snow making parts of the jays largely “invisible” against the snow, unrecognizable to the eye of the predator. Their beaks, black throats, and even the small black feathers in their tails mimic the thin branches or the short shadows on the snow. Here Thayer includes the blue sky and its scudding cloud patterns as a distant variation on the main theme. Perhaps that passage has no relation to camouflage theory but might subconsciously bolster Thayer’s demonstration for the viewer. One might accept the theory, Q.E.D., while relishing the allusive poetry of the earlier watercolor.
Finally we can look at one of Thayer’s ideal figure paintings made during the last decades of the 19th century, a period of nationalism that sparked the so-called “American Renaissance” in art. Many grand public buildings were being decorated with murals, mosaics, and sculpture, whose subjects were often classical allegories or personifications (of learning, law, the arts, and the like). Large projects were undertaken by teams of artists in the spirit, as it was understood, of the Italian Renaissance. Thayer had the tools but not the bent for such work.
He preferred veiled or indirect meanings in his own figure paintings, so his ideal women, though they might have wings, rarely had specific classical referents. These often large paintings were given very elaborate carved and gilded Renaissance style frames.
One beautiful example of his figurative work is My Children. The individualized faces in this painting are expected here, but “his children”—for they were very much his—were also the distinctive models for unnamed figures in other paintings, which underscores the private, personal nature that connects many of Thayer’s works from this period.
Since “ideal” in Thayer’s art rarely means classical or religious imagery, it must be understood in terms of composition, pose, and elevated tone. Here the static, somber figures are frontal and symmetrically grouped, life-size and close to the viewer. Separate and unmoving, they look at us with quiet, even solemn expressions. The white gown with its greenish shadows is a bold central pillar that contrasts strongly with the flanking dark earth colors (browns, ochres and dark greens) of the sketchily painted garments and the dark tree behind, all of which are improvisatorially brushed. Thayer’s disinterest in smooth finish is distinctly modern, his style readily accepted by his patrons.
The boy’s costume is fascinating, its fluctuating complexity rendering its material and the surrounding dark grasses virtually indistinguishable. Our eyes do not readily differentiate figure from ground. This bravura painting is intimately linked to Thayer’s investigations of concealing coloration and his development of camouflage. Abbott Thayer’s subjects and style are unified by the eloquence of poetic ambiguity, which resonates in all his art, from figure painting to landscape to camouflage.
Mr. Kloss was an assistant professor of art history at the University of Virginia, and has enjoyed a long association with the Smithsonian Institution, presenting more than 150 courses in the United States and abroad on European and American art. He has also been a featured lecturer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and serves on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, a presidential appointment he has held since 1990. The author acknowledges with gratitude his debt to the article by Richard S. Meryman, Jr., “Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921),” Monadnock Art, Friends of the Dublin Art Colony, 2006, www.MonadnockArt.org.