Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Abbott Thayer

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.


Unknown said...

Thayer was also the founder of what came to be called the Dublin Art Colony, which attracted both painters and poets to the Monadnock region and included such notables as Frank Benson and Richard Meryman, and writers such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).
Evidently, he was a first class eccentric. But his paintings are cool.
The Dublin Art Colony is revived today as Monadnock Art/Friends of the Dublin Art Colony, and hosts an annual Studio Tour every fall in the region.

Philip Koch said...

In a word, Thayer rocks. Thanks for the post Stape.
I couldn't agree more with your comments on Thayer pulling off the nearly impossible task of convincingly uniting his family members with these large wings. This was hard to do and we can all learn from Thayer's skills.

In addition to the restraint in the wings' highlights, Thayer also had a great eye for expressive silhouettes and a selective use of heightened outer contour edges.

If anyone is down in D.C. the Smithsonian American Art Museum always has a bunch of top notch Thayers on display. They are fabulous paintings.

armandcabrera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
armandcabrera said...

I wish I can correct my spelling had to delete my post and try again. Thanks for posting on this important artist. I live near DC and always stop by and see the Thayers, after the Metcalfs of course.

Mary Byrom said...

Awesome. Love hearing the connection between Thayer and Kent. Makes sense. Such different ways each handled winged beings. I love the restraint in his lights. I think I'd better get out there and paint some of those large winged beings I keep running into. Problem is, they move really fast, faster than humming birds.

Judy P. said...

Thanks for teaching us about uncluttered lights, and Restraint-so powerfully effective here.
In these paintings it's alarmingly clear how much Thayer's life informed his paintings. Wow.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I can't help but notice that in the first painting in the post, the shape and position of the clouds suggest wings too.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I knew about the camouflage stuff, but did not know about his personal life. Interesting and sad stuff. I have always thought Thayers angels were some of the best ever painted- as if some had flown down and posed for him. Amazing work. Looking forward to the rest of the story.

I am going to try to convince my wife that we should sleep outside tonight for our health.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey, thanks for that!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thayer rocks! I noticed that implied wing thing too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I need to get back to the National gallery, I haven't been there in years.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You need to carry a harpoon.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

That is a tricky little passage isn't it?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Perhaps you would like to come and sleep in my yard this January. If you live, I will serve you coffee in the morning.If you don't, well I still have to make coffee don't I?

Teresa Oaxaca said...

Do you know what Thayer's palette was of colors?