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Abbott Handerson Thayer (American painter) 1849 - 1921

As a painter of portraits, figures, animals and landscapes, Thayer 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. After 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 from a lung infection. 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. In 1901, they settled permanently in Dublin, New Hampshire, where Thayer had grown up. 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. 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. 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. 


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