Angel In The Parlor: The Art Of Abbott Thayer

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The permanent move to Dublin seems to have engendered in Thayer a renewed interest in painting landscapes. His house provided a stunning view of Mount Monadnock, and this peak, the subject of a poem by Thayer’s favorite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, became something of a fetish for the artist, who viewed it as a symbol of his desire to transcend the material world.

At the turn of the century Thayer’s commitment to painting was diverted by a growing interest in natural history. In the careful observation of the animal life around him, he began to formulate a theory of natural camouflage. He first published an article about it in 1896 and later elaborated upon his findings in a lengthy study, published in 1909, entitled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom . In it he attempted to show how many species, despite oddly or gaudily marked coats, were under certain optical conditions completely invisible to both predators and prey. Much to his surprise and disappointment, his research was never fully accepted. Foremost among his critics was the former President Theodore Roosevelt, who, in his book African Game Trails , appended a chapter devoted solely to attacking Thayer’s theories. Thayer did not give up, however, and during World War I he tried to interest the Allied Forces in adopting his principles to the design of soldiers’ uniforms and to the painting of warships. He was unsuccessful, and not until the Second World War were his findings put to use.

Thayer continued to paint in his advanced years, but he was increasingly subject to fits of nervous exhaustion. At one point he sought entry to a sanitorium in Wellesley, Massachusetts, hoping to ward off thoughts of suicide; and in New York in 1918 he again placed himself under a doctor’s care. One day, three years later, Thayer, who was resting in bed, asked an assistant to bring him one of his unfinished canvases and his palette and brushes. As he began to work, his hand suddenly stiffened, evidence of a slight stroke. He suffered two more within the next three weeks, then died on May 29, 1921.

A year after his death Thayer was honored with an extensive retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but throughout the 1920s his idealizing tendencies were dismissed as archaic, his use of wings and other allegorical devices considered hopelessly literal and literary. But today, when the modern age has lost its youth, and its brutalities are at least as vivid as its charms, the peculiar blend of opulence and moral nuance implicit in Thayer’s paintings is once again finding its admirers.