In the first of these two articles commemorating the centenary of the death of the American painter Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849–1921), I looked at a selection of works leading up to the peak of his fame in the mid-1890s. Today, exactly one hundred years after his death, I conclude this overview of his art and career.
Although Thayer had used his children as models for some years, at the end of the century he painted more formal family groups. My Children (Mary, Gerald, and Gladys Thayer) from about 1897 is one version based on his triple portrait composition. Mary, the oldest, stands in the middle holding a wreath of laurel, with Gerald at the right and Gladys at the left.
My Children from the period between 1896-1910 is an alternative cropped version in which Mary appears more dreamy.
In 1898, Thayer travelled to Saint Ives in Cornwall, England, with a letter of introduction requesting permission to collect specimens of birds from the cliffs around St Ives. When not collecting those specimens, he painted views such as Cornish Headlands (1898).
The Thayers finally settled permanently near Dublin in New Hampshire in 1901.
I’m struck by the eyes and high forehead of his sitter in this portrait of Margaret McKittrick, which he painted in about 1903. Amazingly, she was only fifteen years old at the time, and was a friend of his own two younger children. Thayer is thought to have worked on this painting over a long period, perhaps several years. In many of his mature paintings, he worked intensely on a canvas for about three days, then set it aside, to return to it some time later.
From time to time, Thayer was drawn back to his theme of the ideal woman with wings, such as The Angel from about 1903.
During the 1890s, Thayer had drawn from his longstanding interest in natural history and his artist’s eye and written about natural countershading and its role in camouflaging animals. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, he and his friend George de Forest Brush proposed the use of countershading on American ships. They met with resistance, and patented the idea in 1902. They then progressed this work with their sons, and finally published a book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom in 1909, for which Thayer produced several illustrations.
His painting of a Male Wood Duck in a Forest Pool (1909) is a good example of what they set out to achieve on a much grander scale with ships.
At their most convincing, Thayer and his collaborators had understood nature well, as shown in Sphinx Caterpillar (Sphingidae, hawkmoths) (1909). His note to this reads:
“C. Sphinx Caterpillar in characteristic position, ‘obliterated’ by its illumination, having the flat aspect, color, and pattern of leaves. D. Sphinx Caterpillar inverted, so that the light strikes its bright back, making it conspicuous.”
Unfortunately, they took these ideas past their extreme.
White Flamingoes, Red Flamingoes, The Skies They Simulate (1909) implies that flamingoes owe their colours to camouflage, which was seized upon by critics as being absurd. Among those who derided this idea was Theodore Roosevelt, who was a naturalist as well as being the outgoing president of the US. It wasn’t until after Thayer’s death that natural countershading and other techniques became widely used for military camouflage.
Among Thayer’s late works is a hauntingly beautiful series of views of Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, near the family home. Monadnock, Winter Sunrise (1919) is perhaps the finest of these.
For this painting, and others in the series, he used a unique working method, in which assistants worked alongside him, copying his every brushstroke onto separate canvases. This enabled him to experiment with a copy in exactly the same state, to refine his pictorial effects.
The name of this mountain describes what it is: an isolated rock hill rising from relatively level terrain. Alternative names include inselberg and koppie.
He didn’t abandon figurative painting in the final months of his life, though, despite rapidly declining health and a series of strokes. He painted Noon early in 1921, then died in the countryside in which he had been brought up, on 29 May that year.
Thayer was an important and influential figure in American art at the end of the nineteenth century. Eccentric and enigmatic in many respects, his figurative painting is still superb by any standard, and his major paintings remain accessible in public collections across the East Coast. His understanding of camouflage in nature was sound, and played an important role long after his death.