Tonight I want to write about one of the stranger characters in American 19th century painting. Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1849-1921.Born in Boston but raised in the shadow of Mount Monadnock in western New Hampshire, Thayer grew up fascinated by wildlife. This was a time when much of science, particularly the natural sciences were the province of amateur hobbyists.
Thayer studied first in New York (a city to the south of Boston) at the National Academy. He then moved to Paris and studied like many young American painters at the Ecole de Beux arts with the great and somewhat rigid academic painter, and foe of the impressionists, Leon Gerome.
Returning to New York Thayer became a successful portrait painter. The death of two of his children, a common occurrence in those days before antibiotics, affected him deeply and he and his wife moved back to New Hampshire. She eventually lost her mind and died in an asylum. Thayer himself developed a manic depressive illness and was plagued by the roller coaster ride of exuberance followed by deep inescapable sadness the rest of his life. He remarried and then painted wonderfulpictures of his surviving children as angels. Here is one of those.
His long study of ornithology informed the wings in this painting and pulling off such a painting is quite a feat. In most other hands this would have been schmaltzy kitsch, but Thayer makes it work and it is a lovely and oddly convincing painting.
Thayer has subordinated the values in the lights giving this piece a quiet and perfected feeling. I have written before about the use of restrained modeling in the lights to get a "clean" look. This is a great example of this restraint of modeling. The uncluttered lights of the wings and gown have the least amount of interruption possible, yet give enough information to tell their story. This gives a dazzling brightness and is in keeping with the "holy" nature of the subject. The handling carries the picture and is part of why the picture works when in the hands of so many French academics of the era this sort of painting is embarrassing and vulgar. Restraint is often the key to pulling off subjects that would be cloyingly sentimental if painted in a more naturalistic fashion. Note this well, as it is mastery and very applicable to painting still, and little appreciated.
Thayer grew odder as the years went on and he and his entire family slept outside year round. It gets real cold in New Hampshire in the winter so that took some commitment. Many people at that time still believed that fresh air was the key to good health and that the stuffy air in a home could inflict disease. This was at the beginning of the American sanitary movement. I guess that's another post.
Thayer gathered about him a coterie of apprentices that included Rockwell Kent. He was a much respected and sought after teacher.
Notice the sweeping parabolic curves about this figure. These were as I so often say; installed and not observed. He no doubt set up a model in this position, but he brought to the painting an underlying geometric structure which gives it a rhythmic beauty.
Tomorrow I will recount for you the surprising story of how this artist who painted these idealized, virginal and presumably virtuous young women became one of the inventors of modern military camouflage.