The newest exhibition at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York examines the influence of nature on military camouflage. One object included in Masters of Disguise: The World of Camouflage is Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, a 1909 book by a father-son team, with the father being one of the early 20th century’s prominent American artists.
Abbott H. Thayer is now best known for his portraiture and paintings of angels, such as this one from 1887 held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He was also obsessed with nature, particularly how animals could disappear through their color patterns into a landscape. Thayer stated that his art was directly linked with his observations, as the “whole basis of picture making consists in contrasting against its background every object in the picture.” With his son Gerald, he published his research in Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, which is fully digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Called “Thayer’s Law,” his assertions on the countershading of animal coloration, so that darker tones were on top and lighter on the bottom, are accented by paintings, illustrations, and sketches of animals concealed in nature, some by Abbott and others by his son.
His observation skills were keen; his belief that all animal coloration was devoted to camouflage wasn’t as sharp. British marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy described how the Thayers’ book “drew the attention of naturalists to the importance of artistic principles in the understanding of animal and military camouflage,” although in “parts of the book they let their imagination carry them away into some absurdities as when they think the colours of flamingos help to make them inconspicuous against sunset!”
However, the book was incredibly influential for developing camouflage in World War I — the first major engagement to rely widely on mass-produced techniques of hiding — and Thayer was active in encouraging the British Army to replace their monochrome uniforms. On board the Intrepid aircraft carrier, the book mingles with a modern ghillie suit, a display on Dazzle camouflage, and other links to how humans have looked to the natural world for inspiration. It’s not a terribly large exhibition, and could have used a lot more artifacts and exploration into areas similar to the Thayers’s work, but in its quiet corner the book recalls the determined artist whose intense observation skills are still morphing in modern camouflage.
Masters of Disguise: The World of Camouflage continues at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum (Pier 86, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through August 24.