A Painter of Angels Became the Father of Camouflage

Turn-of-the-century artist Abbott Thayer created images of timeless beauty and a radical theory of concealing coloration

Thayer contended that even brilliantly plumaged birds like the peacock can blend into, and thus be camouflaged by, their habitats. To illustrate his theory, he and his young assistant Richard Meryman painted Peacock in the Woods for Thayer's coloration book. (National Museum of American Art, SI)
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Down the full distance of my memory, a dauntingly stout box stood on its end in the barn of our Victorian house in Dublin, New Hampshire. In my morbid youthful imagination, maybe it was a child’s casket, maybe there was a skeleton inside. My father airily dismissed the contents: just the printing plates for the illustrations in a 1909 book, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, the brainchild of Abbott Handerson.

Thayer, a major turn-of-the-century painter who died in 1921. He was a mentor to my artist father (whose name I bear) and a family icon. He was the reason my father stayed in Dublin: to be near the man he revered.

I was recently visited in Dublin by Susan Hobbs, an art historian researching Thayer. This was the moment to open the box—which now felt to me like an Egyptian sarcophagus, filled with unimagined treasures. And indeed it was! The plates for the book were there—and with them, cutouts of blossoms and butterflies, birds and bushes—lovely vignettes to show how coloration can conceal objects by merging them with their backgrounds. Everything was wrapped in a 1937 Sunday Boston Globe and New York Herald Tribune.

Also, I held in my hands a startling artifact of military history. Green and brown underbrush was painted on a series of horizontal wooden panels. A string of paper-doll soldiers dappled green and brown could be superimposed on the landscapes to demonstrate how camouflage-design uniforms would blend into the backgrounds. Cutouts and stencils in the shape of soldiers, some hanging from strings, could be placed on the panels as well, to demonstrate degrees of concealment. Here was Abbott Thayer, the father of camouflage.

Nowadays camouflage togs are worn as fashion statements by trendy clotheshorses, and as announcements of machismo by both men and women. The “camo” pattern is the warrior wardrobe for rebels and rogues of all stripes, and hunters of the birds and animals Thayer studied to the point of near worship. Catalogues and stylish boutiques are devoted to camouflage chic. There are camo duffels, camo vests, even camo bikinis.

This evolution is heavily ironic. A strange and astonishing man, Thayer had consecrated his life to painting “pictures of the highest human soul beauty.” He was one of a small group who returned from Paris art schools in the late 1800s with a new vision of American art. They were painters of atmosphere, apostles of timeless beauty, often embodied by depictions of idealized young women. Distinct from the storytelling pre-Raphaelites, the American Impressionists and such muscular Realists as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, the group included Thomas Dewing, Dwight Tryon, George de Forest Brush, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and James McNeill Whistler, who remained abroad. Deemed a “rare genius” by the railroad car magnate Charles Lang Freer, his patron and mentor, Thayer in that era was considered one of the finest figure painters in America.

Thayer’s second obsession was nature. An Emersonian transcendentalist, he found in nature an unsullied form of the purity, the spiritual truth and the beauty he sought in his painting. This combination of art and naturalism led him to his then-radical theory of concealing coloration—how animals hide from their predators, and prey. The foundation of military camouflage, it would have been formulated without Thayer and his particular contributions. Types of camouflage had long existed. Brush was used to conceal the marching soldiers in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the headdresses and war paint worn by African warriors, to cite Thayer’s own example, served to disrupt their silhouettes. But it was Thayer who, in the early 1890s, began creating a wholly formed doctrine of concealing coloration, worked out through observation and experiment.

The theory emerged from the total mingling of his art and his nature studies. Thayer once explained to William James, Jr.—son of the famed philosopher and a devoted disciple of Thayer’s—that concealing coloration was his “second child.” This child, said Thayer, “has hold of one of my hands and my painting has hold of the other. When little C.C. hangs back, I can not go forward....He is my color-study. In birds’ costumes I am doing all my perceiving about the color I now get into my canvases.”

Thayer believed that only an artist could have originated this theory. “The whole basis of picture making,” he said, “consists in contrasting against its background every object in the picture.” He also was a preeminent technician in paint, the acknowledged American master of the color theories developed in Munich and Paris—theories of hue and chroma, of color values and intensities, of how colors enhance or cancel one another when juxtaposed.

Thayer based his concept on his perceptions of the ways in which nature “obliterates” contrast. One is by blending. The colorations of birds, mammals, insects and reptiles, he said, mimic the creatures’ environments. The second is by disruption. Strong arbitrary patterns of color flatten contours and break up outlines, so denizens either disappear or look to be something other than what they are.


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