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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Contours are further confused, Thayer maintained, by the flattening effect of what he termed “countershading”: the upper areas of animals tend to be darker than their shadowed undersides. Thus the overall tone is equalized. “Animals are painted by Nature darkest on those parts which tend to be most lighted by the sky’s light, and vice versa,” wrote Thayer. “The result is that their gradation of light-and-shade, by which opaque solid objects manifest themselves to the eye, is effaced at every point, and the spectator seems to see right through the space really occupied by an opaque animal.”

To demonstrate the effects of countershading, he made small painted birds. One rainy day in 1896 he led Frank Chapman, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to a construction site. At a distance of 20 feet, he asked how many model birds Chapman saw in the mud. “Two,” Chapman said. They advanced closer. Still two. Standing practically on top of the models, Chapman discovered four. The first two were entirely earth brown. The “invisible” two were countershaded, with their upper halves painted brown and their lower halves painted pure white.

Thayer held demonstrations of his theory throughout the East. But while many prominent zoologists were receptive to his ideas, numerous other scientists acrimoniously attacked him. They argued correctly that conspicuous coloring was also designed to warn off a predator or attract a perspective mate. In particular, they resented Thayer’s insistence that his theory be accepted all or nothing—like Holy Scripture.

His most famous detractor was big-game-hunting Teddy Roosevelt, who publicly scoffed at Thayer’s thesis that the blue jay is colored so as to disappear against the blue shadows of winter snows. What about summer? Roosevelt asked. From his own experience, he knew that zebras and giraffes were clearly visible in the veld from miles away. “If you...sincerely desire to get at the truth,” wrote Roosevelt in a letter, “you would realize that your position is literally nonsensical.” Thayer’s law of obliterative countershading did not recieve official acceptance until 1940, when a prominent British naturalist, Hugh B. Cott, published Adaptive Coloration in Animals.

Although concealing coloration, countershading and camouflage are now axiomatically understood, at the end of the 19th century it probably took an eccentric fanatic like Thayer—a freethinker antagonistic to all conventions, a man eminent in a separate field—to break with the rigid mind-set of the naturalist establishment.

Born in 1849, Thayer grew up in Keene, New Hampshire. At age 6, the future artist was already “bird crazy,” as he put it—already collecting skins. Attending a prep school in Boston, he studied with an animal painter and had begun selling paintings of birds and animals when at 19 he arrived at the National Academy of Design in New York.

There Thayer met his feminine ideal, an innocent soul—poetic, graceful, fond of philosophic reading and discussion. Her name was Kate Bloede. They were married in 1875, and at age 26, Thayer put aside his naturalist self and sailed for Paris to begin four years of study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme, a great master of composition and the human figure.

When they returned to America, Thayer supported his family by doing commissioned portraits. By 1886 he and Kate had three children, Mary, Gladys and Gerald. Brilliant, isolated, ascetic, hyperintense, an almost pure example of late-19th-century romantic idealism, Thayer epitomized the popular image of a genius. His mind would race at full throttle in a rush of philosophies and certainties. His joy was exploring the imponderables of life, and he scrawled passionate, barely readable letters, his second thoughts routinely continued in a series of postscripts.

Impractical, erratic, improvident, Thayer described himself as “a jumper from extreme to extreme.” He confessed to his father that his brain only “takes care of itself for my main function, painting.” Later he would compose letters to Freer in his head and then be surprised that his patron had not actually received them. Though Thayer earned a fortune, selling paintings for as much as $10,000, an enormous sum in those days, money was often a problem. With wheedling charm he would pester Freer for loans and advance payments.

Thayer cut a singular figure. A smallish man, 5 feet 7 inches tall, lean and muscular, he moved with a quick vitality. His narrow, bony face, with its mustache and aquiline nose, was topped by a broad forehead permanently furrowed by frown lines from concentration. He began the winter in long woolen underwear, and as the weather warmed, he gradually cut off the legs till by summer he had shorts. Winter and summer he wore knickers, knee-high leather boots and a paint-splotched Norfolk jacket.


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