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Angel In The Parlor: The Art Of Abbott Thayer

July 2024
7min read

He loved women so much he painted wings on them. After years of neglect, he is now being appreciated.

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.

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.


A Major Portraitist


Nature Seen and Unseen


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.

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.

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