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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

After moving the family from place to place, in 1901 Thayer settled permanently, 13 miles from Keene, in Dublin, New Hampshire, just below the great granite bowl of Mount Monadnock. His Thoreauesque communion with nature permeated the entire household. Wild animals—owls, rabbits, woodchucks, weasels—roamed the house at will. There were pet prairie dogs named Napoleon and Josephine, a red, blue and yellow macaw, and spider monkeys that regularly escaped from their cages. In the living room stood a stuffed peacock, probably used as a model for a painting (opposite) in the protective coloration book. A stuffed downy woodpecker, which in certain lights disappeared into its artfully arranged background of black winter twigs and branches, held court in the little library.

Promoting to ornithologists his theory of protective coloration, Thayer met a young man who immediately was adopted as an honorary son. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and though he would become a famous painter of birds, he began as an affectionate disciple.

Both men were fascinated with birds. They regularly exchanged skins and Fuertes joined Thayer on birding expeditions. He spent a summer and two winters with the family, joining in their high intellectual and spiritual arguments—the exact interpretation of the Icelandic Sagas—and their rushes to the dictionary or relief globe to settle questions of etymology and geography. On regular walks in the woods, Fuertes summoned birds by whistling their calls—like Thayer, who stood on the summit of Mount Monadnock in the twilight and attracted great horned owls by making a sucking sound on the back of his hand. One owl, it is said, perched on top of his bald head.

Fuertes also served as a tutor to Gerald. Thayer’s children were not sent to school. He needed their daily companionship, he said, and feared the germs they might pick up. He thought the purity of their youth would be corrupted by a confining, formal education. The children were well taught at home, not the least by Thayer’s lofty environment of music and books. Mary grew up to be an expert linguist. Gladys became a gifted painter and a fine writer. Gerald, also an artist, was to be the author of record of Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.

The Dublin house had been given to the Thayer family by Mary Amory Greene. A direct descendent of the painter John Singleton Copley, Greene had been one of Thayer’s students. She made herself Thayer’s helper, handling correspondence, collecting fees—and writing substantial checks. She was one of several genteel, affluent, single females delighted to dedicate themselves to the artist. He once explained, “A creative genius uses all his companions...passing to each some rope or something to handle at his fire, i.e. his painting or his poem.”

Another savior was Miss Emmeline “Emma” Beach. A tiny sprite of a woman with reddish-gold hair, she was gentle, understanding, selfless, but also efficient, effectual, and moneyed. Her father owned the New York Sun. Kate was as disorganized as her husband, so both embraced Emma’s friendship. She cheerfully became the Thayer family factotum, struggling to bring order to the chaos.

In 1888 Kate’s mind folded into melancholia and she entered a sanatorium. Alone with the three children, blaming himself for causing Kate’s “dark state,” Thayer turned more and more to Emma. He wrote her wooing, confiding letters, calling her his “Dear fairy godmother” and imploring her to come for extended visits. When Kate died of a lung infection in 1891 in the sanatorium, Thayer proposed to Emma by mail, including the plea that Kate had wished her to care for the children. They were married four months after Kate’s death, and it was with Emma that Thayer settled year-round in Dublin. Now it fell to her to keep the fragile artist glued together.

This was a considerable challenge. His life was blighted by what he called “the Abbott pendulum.” There were highs of blissful “all-wellity” when he reveled in “such tranquility, such purity of nature and such dreams of painting.” At these times he was his essential self—a man of ingratiating charm and grace and generosity. But then depressions set in. “My sight turns inward,” he wrote, “and I have such a state of sick disgust at myself....”

He suffered from “oceans of hypochondria,” which he blamed on his mother, and from an “irritability” he claimed to inherit from his father. Harassed by sleeplessness, exhaustion and anxiety, by petty illnesses, bad eyes and headaches, he kept his state of health, excellent or terrible, constantly in the foreground.

He was convinced that fresh mountain air was the best medicine for everyone, and the entire family slept under bearskin rugs in outdoor lean-tos—even in 30-below weather. In the main house, windows were kept open winter and summer. The place had never been winterized, and what heat there was came from fireplaces and small wood-burning stoves. Illumination was provided by kerosene lamps and candles. Until a water tower fed by a windmill was built, the only plumbing was a hand pump in the kitchen. A privy stood behind the house. But there was always the luxury of a cook and house maids, one of whom, Bessie Price, Thayer used as a model.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus