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An Artist and Amateur Scientist Who Painted Animal Camouflage and Angels

Abbott Handerson Thayer, "Roseate Spoonbills," study for 'Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom' (1905-09), oil on paperboard (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the heirs of Abbott Handerson Thayer)
Abbott Handerson Thayer, “Roseate Spoonbills,” study for ‘Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom’ (1905–09), oil on paperboard (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the heirs of Abbott Handerson Thayer)

Before coming across an unusually calligraphic painting of a mountain, Williams College Museum of Art Curator Kevin Murphy considered the turn-of-the-century artist Abbott Handerson Thayer “a one slide guy,” a man known for portraits of placid angels, who in an art history class might get one mention and then be forgotten. “He’s part of a group of people who are kind of the losers of American art,” Murphy said. “They weren’t hip to the changes in visual arts that were happening.”

Photograph of Abbott Handerson Thayer (1890) (via Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia)
Photograph of Abbott Handerson Thayer (1890) (via Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

Then Murphy saw Thayer’s 1918 “Mount Monadnock” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “He’s painting really strangely, the way that he’s layered strokes and is doing all these different things with color, almost these Jackson Pollock gestural strokes over a mountain,” Murphy said. “I’d never seen anyone paint like this.”

In addition to making art, Thayer was an amateur scientist whose ideas about animal concealment greatly influenced World War I camouflage (an impact previously covered on Hyperallergic). He painted blue jays blending into shadows on snow, and roseate spoonbills masked by a rosy sky at dusk. Some of his theories were highly imaginative — Teddy Roosevelt, with whom he feuded in the press, called Thayer one of the “Nature Fakers” — but they radically changed tactical hiding. The British army, for instance, at Thayer’s prodding, swapped some of their special force’s monochrome uniforms for patterns mixing stripes of cloth along with sticks and leaves.

Abbott Handerson Thayer
Abbott Handerson Thayer, “Diorama for Military Camouflage with Text Panels” (1914–15), mixed media on plywood (collection of Richard Meryman ’48) (click to enlarge)
Installation view of 'Not Theories but Revelations' (photo by Arthur Evans)
Installation view of ‘Not Theories but Revelations’ (photo by Arthur Evans)

These two sides of Thayer, the anti-modernist painter of seraphic ladies and the obsessive camouflage scientist, have rarely been considered together. Not Theories but Revelations: The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer, curated by Murphy at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts, is the first major exhibition to join these seemingly disparate aspects of Thayer. In his sweeping brushstrokes and analysis of animal coloration was an underlying concern about protection from a dangerous world.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, "Angel of the Dawn" (1919), oil on canvas (courtesy St. Anselm Abbey School, Washington D.C., gift of Mrs. Charles Plunket)
Abbott Handerson Thayer, “Angel of the Dawn” (1919), oil on canvas (courtesy St. Anselm Abbey School, Washington D.C., gift of Mrs. Charles Plunket) (click to enlarge)

Not Theories but Revelations features a huge amount of newly unearthed material from the Thayer archives, which Murphy had first access to as an art historian. He said that “about 50 percent of the exhibition has not been on view before, and much of it hasn’t been published.” This includes dioramas, material for his 1909 book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, and a tiny hat, which is among the first modern camouflage prototypes. A catalogue coming out this fall further explores Thayer’s work and curious life.

In New Hampshire, Thayer and his family slept out in the elements in lean-tos, even when snow stacked up in winter, so convinced was Thayer that fresh air was necessary to his children’s survival. Like the animals that he believed were only safe in their natural habitats, he kept his children in a sort of compound away from outside influences. “In the 1970s, he would have been a great cult leader,” Murphy said. “Just to underscore him as a cult deity, they made this incredible death mask of him in plaster that they hung in their family room.” The death mask is one of the many long-unseen objects in the exhibition.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, "Male Wood Duck in a Forest Pool," study for 'Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom' (1909), oil on board (courtesy family and estate of Abbott Handerson Thayer)
Abbott Handerson Thayer, “Male Wood Duck in a Forest Pool,” study for ‘Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom’ (1909), oil on board (courtesy family and estate of Abbott Handerson Thayer)
Installation view of 'Not Theories but Revelations' (photo by Arthur Evans)
Installation view of ‘Not Theories but Revelations’ (photo by Arthur Evans)

Murphy added that in this closed world, Thayer had a group of followers who he trained to copy his paintings stroke for stroke, so that if he got stuck on his own work he could shift to one of theirs without ruining the original. One of these assistants was Richard Meryman, who was part of the Army Camouflage Corps, which adopted Thayer’s ideas in World War I. Meryman later salvaged what he could from Thayer’s studio when the makeshift structure finally collapsed, and kept everything in his cottage. Included in this jumble, the Meryman family stored huge boxes of glass plate negatives, with over 300 that belonged to Thayer. All of that material stayed in storage until it was unearthed for Not Theories but Revelations. Murphy hopes the exhibition gives a more balanced portrayal of Thayer that has long been absent from American art history, where he appears as an eccentric, staid painter, if at all.

“There’s a way in which he’s trying to envelope the things that he loves and cares about, women and nature, but also then people who are fighting in war,” Murphy said. “The umbrella of all of this is the idea of protection, and he comes up with these artistic strategies to symbolically do that in the fine art, and scientifically with camouflage.”

Installation view of 'Not Theories but Revelations' (photo by Arthur Evans)
Installation view of ‘Not Theories but Revelations’ (photo by Arthur Evans)
Abbott Handerson Thayer
Abbott Handerson Thayer, “Angel” (1900–03), oil on canvas (courtesy Harvard/Fogg Museum, gift of Irwin D. Hoffman)
Abbott Handerson Thayer, "Study of Alma Wollerman (Mrs. Gerald Thayer)" (1915), oil on canvas (courtesy Jean Reasoner Plunket Trust)
Abbott Handerson Thayer, “Study of Alma Wollerman (Mrs. Gerald Thayer)” (1915), oil on canvas (courtesy Jean Reasoner Plunket Trust)

Not Theories but Revelations: The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer continues at Williams College Museum of Art (15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, Massachusetts) through August 21. 

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