By Roy R. Behrens
Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) was an important American artist in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and his paintings were commissioned by some of the foremost art collectors in the United States. He was also a lifelong wildlife advocate whose artistic focus never strayed far from his personal fascination with the natural world. In the 1890s, he began to publish articles in scientific journals on his developing theory of protective coloration. Through observing wildlife, he discovered that the coats of many animals employ color patterns that conceal them in their natural environments. He noticed, for instance, that the flecked coloring of woodland birds resembles the dappled effect of sunlight seen through branches and leaves. Plumage, according to Thayer, “is a sort of patchwork of pictures, subtly intermingled, each an epitome of some particular type or detail of woodland scenery.” He called this phenomenon a “beautiful law of nature.”
At the outset of World War I, Thayer channeled his theories of concealing coloration—for which he had become widely recognized, in part because of a public debate surrounding the efficacy of his ideas—into concepts for early camouflage design. He realized that human lives could be spared and protected by applying the perceptual tendencies he discovered in animal coloration to soldiers’ uniforms, vehicles, ships and supplies. In the last twenty years of his life, Thayer combined his studies of art, natural science and camouflage development into a remarkable and unprecedented oeuvre.
This important collection sheds new light on Thayer’s achievements in the last decades of his life in a way that clearly demonstrates how his scientific discoveries were informed and governed by an artistic vision. In an almost literal sense, Thayer saw nature and painting as one, and he employed them together in response to the needs that arose from the war.
Thayer arrived at camouflage inadvertently, in the process of pursuing art. As a student, he had learned that any shape drawn on a flat surface can be given volume and dimension by a venerable process called shading. This is reliably achieved by rendering the shape lighter on the top and gradually darker toward the bottom. As we know from current brain research, this takes advantage of an inborn visual tendency called the top-down lighting bias: when we look at anything, we default to the assumption that its light source is coming from overhead.
It was Thayer’s artistic experience that enabled him to realize why so many animals have light colored bellies with darker coloring toward the tops of their bodies. The effect is the inverse of shading. Appropriately, it became known as countershading, because the effect counteracts the shadows resulting from cast sunlight, making an animal look less dimensional, less solid, less “thing-like.” Though some of Thayer’s other proposals have been disregarded, countershading is a widely accepted biological principle today, and stands as the artist’s most significant contribution to the natural sciences.
Spurred on by his meteoric success (initially scientists praised his work), Thayer redoubled his efforts to make even more startling scientific discoveries about animal forms, devising ingenious demonstrations, mounting museum exhibits and publishing numerous scientific papers to showcase his findings. In 1909, prior to WWI, he and his son Gerald published a masterful volume titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern: Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Discoveries, which is arguably the most innovative and thought-provoking treatise on natural camouflage to this day. When war broke out, it was largely because of Thayer’s writings that French, British and American camouflage units were formed for the first time in history, with hundreds of artists, designers and architects (a few of his students among them) serving as camouflage specialists, known as camoufleurs.
Having written extensively on Thayer, art and camouflage for four decades, I find the most exciting part of this exhibition the inclusion of studies and mock-ups that demonstrate Thayer’s application of his animal coloration theories to wartime camouflage. These include dioramic backgrounds with cutout figures of soldiers, not unlike paper dolls, in disruptively painted field service uniforms, and stencil-like silhouettes of soldiers that can be repositioned from one background to another. There are also a number of small-scale watercolor studies of so-called “dazzle” patterns applied to the sides of ships. To my knowledge, few if any of these artifacts have ever been exhibited.
This catalog’s essay by Martin Stevens affirms that Thayer’s camouflage theories have been “increasingly validated through scientific testing.” However, there will always be an imbalance between scientific discovery and artistic exploration, as one is attributed with the process and precision of logic and the other mythologized by the arcane, anagogic nature of creativity. So, perhaps as a consequence of Thayer’s quixotic temperament, combined with his admission of manic-depressive tendencies (he wrote of his extreme mood swings between “all-wellity” and “sick disgust”), the validity of his pronouncements may always be doubted in some circles.
Looking back nearly a century later, it is clear that he was doubtlessly balky and eccentric, but equally ahead of his time. Even his son Gerald, in an essay published two years after his father’s death, admitted that Thayer, “who now stands, both in this country and Europe, as the extreme believer, or over-believer, in protective coloration in nature is, to my mind, at once an unequalled expert and an extremist.”
Mr. Behrens is a Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar at University of Northern Iowa. He teaches graphic design and design history. He has written extensively on art and camouflage, and maintains a blog on the subject at www.camoupedia.blogspot.com.