Abbott Handerson Thayer (August 12, 1849 – May 29, 1921) was an American artist, naturalist and teacher. As a painter of portraits, figures, animals and landscapes, he enjoyed a certain prominence during his lifetime, as indicated by the fact that his paintings are part of the most important U.S. art collections. During the last third of his life, he worked together with his son, Gerald Handerson Thayer, on a major book about protective coloration in nature, titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Disclosures. First published by Macmillan in 1909, then reissued in 1918, it had an effect on the use of military camouflage during World War I. He also influenced American art by his efforts as a teacher who trained apprentices in his New Hampshire studio.
Thayer was born in Boston, Massachusetts. The son of a country doctor, he spent his childhood in rural New Hampshire, near Keene, at the foot of Mount Monadnock. In that rural setting, he became an amateur naturalist (in his own words, he was “bird crazy”), a hunter and a trapper. Thayer studied Audubon's Birds of America on an almost daily basis, experimented with taxidermy, and made his first artworks: watercolor paintings of animals.
At the age of fifteen he was sent to the Chauncy Hall School in Boston, where he met Henry D. Morse, an amateur artist who painted animals. With guidance from Morse, Abbott developed and improved his painting skills, focusing on depictions of birds and other wildlife, and soon began painting animal portraits on commission.
At age 18, he relocated to Brooklyn, New York, to study painting at the Brooklyn Art School and the National Academy of Design. studying under Lemuel Wilmarth. He met many emerging and progressive artists during this period in New York, including his future wife, Kate Bloede and his close friend, Daniel Chester French. He showed work at the newly formed Society of American Artists, and continued refining his skills as an animal and landscape painter. In 1875, after having married Kate Bloede, he moved to Paris, where he studied for four years at the École des Beaux-Arts, with Henri Lehmann and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and where his closest friend became the American artist George de Forest Brush. Returning to New York, he established his own portrait studio (which he shared with Daniel Chester French), became active in the Society of American Painters, and began to take in apprentices.
Life became all but unbearable for Thayer and his wife during the early 1880s, when two of their small children died unexpectedly, just one year apart. Emotionally devastated, they spent the next several years relocating from place to place. Although he was not yet secure financially, Thayer's growing reputation resulted in more portrait commissions than he could accept. Among his sitters were Mark Twain and Henry James, but the subjects of many of his paintings were the three remaining Thayer children, Mary, Gerald and Gladys.
In 1898, Thayer visited St Ives, Cornwall and, with an introductory letter from C. Hart Merrian, the Chief of the US Biological Survey in Washington, D.C., applied to the lord of the Manor of St Ives and Treloyhan, Henry Arthur Mornington Wellesley, the 3rd Earl Cowley, for permission to collect specimens of birds from the cliffs at St Ives. In 1901, he and his wife settled permanently in Dublin, New Hampshire, where they had often vacationed and where Thayer had grown up. Soon after, when her father died, Thayer’s wife lapsed into an irreversible melancholia, which led to her confinement in an asylum, the decline of her health, and her eventual death on May 3, 1891.
Soon after, Thayer married their long-time friend, Emma Beach, whose father owned The New York Sun. He and his second wife spent their remaining years in rural New Hampshire, living simply and working productively. Eccentric and opinionated, Thayer grew more so as he aged, and his family's manner of living reflected his strong beliefs: the Thayers typically slept outdoors year-round in order to enjoy the benefits of fresh air, and the three children were never enrolled in a school. The younger two, Gerald and Gladys, shared their father's enthusiasms, and became painters. During this latter part of his life, among Thayer’s neighbors was George de Forest Brush, with whom (when they were not quarreling) he collaborated on matters pertaining to camouflage.
It is difficult to categorize Thayer simply and conclusively as an artist. He was often described in first person accounts as eccentric and mercurial, and there is a parallel contradictory mixture of academic tradition, spontaneity and improvisation in his artistic methods. For example, he is largely known as a painter of “ideal figures,” in which he portrayed women as embodiments of virtue, adorned in flowing white tunics and equipped with feathered angel’s wings. At the same time, he did this using methods that were surprisingly unorthodox, such as purposely mixing dirt into the paint, or (in one instance at least) using a broom instead of a brush to lessen the sense of rigidity in a newly finished, still-wet painting. He survived with the help of his patrons, among them the industrialist Charles Lang Freer. Some of his finest works are in the collections of the Freer Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Academy of Design, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago.
Thayer was also resourceful in his teaching, which he saw as a useful, inseparable part of his own studio work. Among his devoted apprentices were Rockwell Kent, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Richard Meryman, Barry Faulkner (Thayer's cousin), Alexander and William James (the sons of Harvard philosopher William James), and Thayer's own son and daughter, Gerald and Gladys.
In a letter to Thomas Wilmer Dewing (c. 1917, in the collection of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), Thayer reveals that his method was to work on a new painting for only three days. If he worked longer on it, he said, he would either accomplish nothing or would ruin it. So on the fourth day, he would instead take a break, getting as far from the work as possible, but meanwhile instruct each student to make an exact copy of that three-day painting. Then, when he did return to his studio, he would (in his words) "pounce on a copy and give it a three-day shove again". As a result, he would end up with alternate versions of the same painting, in substantially different finished states.
Thayer is sometimes referred to as the “father of camouflage.” This is not entirely unreasonable, because, while he did not invent camouflage, he was undoubtedly one of the first to conduct extensive research on and to write about certain aspects of protective coloration in nature. In particular, beginning in 1892, he wrote about the function of countershading in nature, by which forms appear less round and less solid through inverted shading, by which he accounted for the white undersides of animals. This finding is still accepted widely, and is sometimes now called Thayer’s Law.
He first became involved in military camouflage in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, when he and his friend George de Forest Brush proposed the use of protective coloration on American ships, using countershading. While the war did not last long enough for anything to be done about this, the two artists did obtain a patent for their idea in 1902, titled “Process of Treating the Outsides of Ships, etc., for Making Them Less Visible” (U.S. Patent 715,013), in which their method is described as having been modeled on the coloration of a seagull.
Thayer and Brush’s experiments with camouflage continued into World War I, both collaboratively and separately. Early during that war, for example, Brush developed a transparent airplane, while Thayer continued his interest in disruptive or high-difference camouflage, which was not unlike what British ship camouflage designer Norman Wilkinson would call dazzle camouflage (a term that may have been inspired by Thayer's writings, which referred to disruptive patterns in nature as “razzle dazzle”.)
Gradually, Thayer and Brush entrusted their camouflage work to the responsibility of their sons. Concealing Colouration in the Animal Kingdom (1909), which had taken seven years to prepare, was credited to Thayer’s son, Gerald. At about the same time, Thayer once again proposed ship camouflage to the U.S. Navy (and was again unsuccessful), this time working not with Brush, but with Brush's son, Gerome (named in honor of his father's teacher).
A few years later, with the start of World War I, Thayer made proposals to the British War Office, trying unsuccessfully to persuade them to adopt a disruptively patterned field service uniform, in place of monochrome khaki. Meanwhile, Thayer and Gerome Brush’s proposal for the use of countershading in ship camouflage was approved for use on American ships, and a handful of Thayer enthusiasts (among them Barry Faulkner and other Thayer students) recruited hundreds of artists to join the American Camouflage Corps.
By his own admission, Thayer often suffered from a condition that is now known as bipolar disorder. In his letters, he described it as “the Abbott pendulum,” by which his emotions alternated between the two extremes of (in his words) “all-wellity” and “sick disgust.” This condition apparently worsened as the controversy grew about his camouflage findings, most notably when they were denounced by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. As he aged, he suffered increasingly from panic attacks (which he termed “fright-fits”), nervous exhaustion, and suicidal thoughts, so much so that he was no longer allowed to go out in his boat alone on Dublin Pond.
At age 71, Thayer was disabled by a series of strokes, and died quietly at home on May 29, 1921.
In October 2008, the first, and to date only, documentary film about Thayer’s life and work premiered at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Titled Invisible: Abbott Thayer and the Art of Camouflage, it featured a wide selection of his drawings and paintings, archival photographs, historic documents, and interviews with humorist P. J. O'Rourke, Richard Meryman, Jr. (whose father was Thayer’s student), camouflage scholar Roy R. Behrens, Smithsonian curator Richard Murray, Thayer’s friends and relatives, and others.