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Angel In The Parlor: The Art Of Abbott Thayer
He loved women so much he painted wings on them. After years of neglect, he is now being appreciated.
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Thayer’s notion of the proper spiritual demeanor of women may be deduced from an angry letter he wrote to the editor of Bruno’s Weekly , a mildly decadent periodical of the day. The offending work was a cover drawing by Aubrey Beardsley: “Happening to overcome my fury and nausea at the filthy Beardsley (the big-sterned, grown-up female cherub) outside of the last issue you sent me, I note with surprise the sane London letter about the closing of the British Museum. Who could expect to find anything sweet or wholesome inside of a wrapper systematically daubed with stinking s___? … The test is simple. When any set of men paint such spectacles as these Beardsley atrocities, one of two things is the case. Either these loathsome figures honestly present their author’s ideal of the woman he would like to marry and worship all his life, or they are their author’s confession of being morally down and out.
“For men, the dawn, the day, girls, mothers and children, and brave kind men, all these things in their most familiar form are more ravishing every day come over again, through all time by virtue of the ever-deepening layers of heavenly connotations which they accumulate.”
Thayer’s concern for his children grew intense when in 1888 his wife was diagnosed as suffering from melancholia and was admitted to a mental asylum. She remained hospitalized for three years with no improvement in her condition and died after a pulmonary complication in 1891. During his wife’s slow deterioration, Thayer managed to stay extremely productive, but he was close to despair. The situation was at last relieved when, in September of that year, he married a former student named Emma Beach.
During the 1890s Thayer’s personal life became more stable. For the most part he spent his winters in Scarborough and his summers in Dublin, where a wealthy student of his, Mary Amory Greene, had built a cottage for him on her property. At this time Thayer’s painting took a change in direction. No longer interested in pursuing commissions for portraits, he became increasingly absorbed in the creation of large allegorical canvases—sometimes idealized renderings of women portrayed as angels, sometimes his own children dressed in classical garb.
Such works were not easy to sell. Fortunately Thayer found a wealthy patron in Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit industrialist who not only bought a number of canvases but also came through with large advances when no paintings were available. Another patron, the New York collector John Gellatly, purchased thirty-five works by Thayer. Like Freer, Gellatly was to donate his collection to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington at his death; the works remain there to this day.
It is difficult to imagine how the artist could have survived without the aid of these two men, for his method of working was not at all efficient, nor were the hours he kept regular or strenuous. Despite a muscular physique and no record of any serious illness, Thayer constantly complained of fatigue, poor eyesight, and nervous exhaustion; he found himself able to work in his studio only four hours a day. Once settled in, Thayer’s progress was still not swift. While he was an exceedingly skilled draftsman and often managed to get a painting into shape within a few days, he would then make small adjustments, which could continue for months. Even after a painting was sold and removed from the studio, Thayer might ask to have it returned in hopes of improving it.
Owls and rabbits wandered freely through the house, and porcupines would eat (with the utmost delicacy) off plates at the table.
In 1901 the Thayers moved permanently to Dublin. With its thin planking and lack of central heating, the home Mary Amory Greene had built for them was intended for summer use only. But the Thayers saw no need to improve it even though temperatures could fall to forty degrees below zero. In fact they made a habit of sleeping out of doors, summer and winter, in individual lean-tos built nearby. Every night each member of the family would appear enveloped in strange but substantial nightwear and then disappear into the woods, leaving the servants and any guests to compete for positions near a fireplace inside.
As the Thayers went outside, nature came in. Owls and rabbits wandered freely through the house and porcupines would eat off plates at the dining table (with the utmost delicacy it is reported). Thayer would often go about with kittens tucked away in his clothing. Guinea pigs were in evidence for many years and also two prairie dogs named Napoleon and Josephine, a gift from Freer. More exotic animals, including a macaw and several spider monkeys, were picked up in travels to the West Indies and kept in cages from which they frequently escaped. A tame crow named Satan would appear every spring to eat from the same dishes as the cats. And one summer a copperhead snake kept residence in a glass cage.