Angel In The Parlor: The Art Of Abbott Thayer

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VISITORS TO a performance by the Kneisel String Quartet in New York City one autumn afternoon in 1894 may well have been distracted from the sonorities of Beethoven by a strangely dressed man in the audience. In contrast to the stylish appearance of the rest of the music lovers, he wore a rumpled corduroy hunting suit, a battered felt hat, rubber boots, and a frayed handkerchief wound round his head and tied under his chin, as if to relieve a toothache. He carried a brown paper sack, which, when placed under the seat, leaked trails of blood on the auditorium floor. Those present may have assumed that here was some Yankee rustic, game bag in tow, who had wandered into the concert hall on impulse, and they would have been absolutely correct. They would not have guessed, however, that the man was Abbott H. Thayer, one of the best known and most highly paid society painters on the Eastern seaboard.

Thayer was then spending most of his time in the country, either at his house in Scarborough, New York, a pastoral village on the Hudson River, or at his summer cottage in the small resort community of Dublin, New Hampshire. But he was no stranger to the city. Much of his life had been spent in New York, where he moved to pursue a career as a painter in 1867, after a childhood in rural New England (where he had become an adept hunter and trapper) and graduation from the Chauncy Hall School in Boston. At first he lived with his parents and three sisters on Smith Street in Brooklyn. He rented a studio close by and soon gained a modest reputation painting portraits of household pets and pictures relating to hunting—dogs, game, fish.

Thayer continued to develop his skills at the Brooklyn Art School, but in the early 1870s he enrolled at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. There he was considered a good but not extraordinary student who had little patience drawing from antique casts but did well in the life class. He was an avid talker and theorizer, confident of his opinions if not always of his artistic talent. He frequently brought in sketches of things he had done elsewhere and put them on the wall of the studio, hoping to win praise from his classmates, whose support he seemed to require and whose criticism made him anxious.

 

On June 9, 1875, Thayer married Kate Bloede, the daughter of a German newspaperman who emigrated to Brooklyn after two years’ imprisonment for his part as one of the Revolutionists of 1848. A week later the couple sailed for Europe. In the spring of 1876 Thayer entered the life class of Jean Léon Gérôme, then the most famous artist in Europe. While in Paris the Thayers led a genial domestic life, made more so by the addition of a daughter, Mary, born in March of 1876, and a son, Harry, born two years later. As one of the few married American students, Thayer frequently played host to his single colleagues, who would drop by for a touch of the home life they had left behind. In fact, it seems that the Thayer apartment was regarded by himself and others as an island of propriety amid the licentiousness and sexual freedom of the Latin Quarter. Although many Americans in Paris learned to adopt a more Continental point of view; Abbott and a few kindred spirits held out.

 
 

When Thayer returned from Europe in May of 1879, he began immediately to receive commissions for portraits. His years abroad however, had left him in debt. Forever absorbed in aesthetics, he was highly disorganized when it came to practical affairs, and family and friends were often called upon to bail him out. These early years were made more difficult by the death of Harry in 1880, and of a second son only three months old the following year.

Throughout the next decade Thayer and his family moved around the Northeast almost seasonally. Two more children were born to them during this period; a son, Gerald, in 1883, and a second daughter, Gladys, three years later. Thayer remained extremely busy, and he exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design and the more progressive Society of American Artists. It was at this time that he became known particularly for his portraits of women, which were thought not only to achieve an admirable likeness but also to be instilled with a satisfying spiritual dimension. Most of them exhibit a restrained kind of beauty—elegant but not ostentatious, with meek and introspective expressions. Such renderings did not always match the personalities of the sitters. When commissioned to paint the retired president of Wellesley College, Thayer was disgruntled by her forthright intelligence and self-confidence and referred to her derisively as a “donna intellettuale.” He willfully ignored these qualities when doing her portrait, painting instead a gentle young maiden more suited to his own taste.