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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I always loved hearing my father tell what happened then. In the presence of the busy, skeptical generals, Sargent opened the package. Out fell Thayer’s paint-daubed Norfolk jacket. Pinned across it were scraps of fabric and several of Emma’s stockings. To Thayer, it told the entire story of disruptive patterning. To the elegant Sargent, it was an obscenity—“a bundle of rags!” he fumed to William James, Jr. “I wouldn’t have touched it with my stick!”

Later Thayer received word that his trip had born some sort of fruit: “Our British soldiers are protected by coats of motley hue and stripes of paint as you suggested,” wrote the wife of the British ambassador to the United States. Thayer continued battling to make the British Navy camouflage its ships. In 1916, overstressed and unstrung, he broke down, and in Emma’s words was “sent away from home for a rest.”

The United States entered the war in April 1917, and when a number of artists proposed their own ways to camouflage U.S. warships, Thayer refocused his frenzy. He sent a copy of the concealing coloration book to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and bombarded him with passionate letters decrying the wrongheaded perversion of his ideas by others. “It will be disastrous if, after all, they dabble in my discoveries,” he wrote. “I beg you, be wise enough as to try accurately, mine, first.”

White, he contended, was the best concealing color for blending with the horizon sky. Dark superstructures, like smokestacks, could be hidden by white canvas screens or a bright wire net. White would be the invisible color at night. One proof, he insisted, was the white iceburg struck by the Titanic. Although some credence would later be given to this theory in a 1963 Navy manual on ship camouflage, Thayer’s ideas in this regard were primarily inspirational rather than practical.

His theories had a more direct effect on Allied uniforms and matériel. A Camouflage Corps was assembled—an unmilitary lot led by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ son, Homer. It was for his edification that Thayer had prepared the camouflage demonstration panels that I discovered in Dublin. By 1918 this motley corps contained 285 soldiers—carpenters, iron workers, sign painters. Its 16 officers included sculptors, scenery designers, architects and artists. One was my father, a second lieutenant.

In France a factory applied disruptive, variegated designs to American trucks, sniper suits and observation posts, thereby, as an Army report explained, “destroying identity by breaking up the form of the object.” “Dazzle” camouflage used pieces of material knotted to wire netting, casting shadows that broke up the shapes beneath.

During 1918, Thayer’s frustration over ship camouflage and terror over the war reached a continual, low-grade hysteria. It was too much even for Emma. That winter she fled to her sister in Peekskill, New York. Thayer took refuge in a hotel in Boston, then took himself to a sanatorium. From there he wrote Emma, “I lacked you to jeer me out of suicide and I got into a panic.”

In early 1919 they were together again. But by March, Emma needed another rest in Peekskill, and again during the winter of 1920-21. Despite her absences, Thayer settled down, cared for by his daughter Gladys and his devoted assistants. Late that winter he began a picture that combined his two most cherished themes: an “angel” posed open-armed in front of Mount Monadnock (left). In May he had a series of strokes. The last one, on May 29, 1921, killed him. On hearing of Thayer’s death, John Singer Sargent said, “Too bad he’s gone. He was the best of them.”

The Thayer cosmos disintegrated, drifting away into indifference and neglect. There was a memorial exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art within a year, but for decades many of his finest works remained unseen, stored in the vaults of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, which is prohibited from lending paintings for outside exhibitions. In the post-Armory Show era the changing fashions of the art world regarded Thayer’s angels as sentimental relics of a defunct taste.

Emma died in 1924. For a time the little Dublin complex stood empty, decaying year after year. When I was 9, my brother and I climbed up on the roof of Gerald’s house, near Thayer’s studio, and entered the attic through an open hatch. In one corner, heaped up like a hay mow, was a pile of Gerald’s bird skins. I touched it. Whrrrr! A raging cloud of moths. The horror was indelible. Thayer’s own prized collection of skins was packed in trunks and stored in an old mill house on the adjacent property. Ultimately, the birds deteriorated and were thrown out. In 1936 Thayer’s house and studio were torn down. Gerald’s house lasted only a year or so longer. The box in our barn was apparently given to my father for safekeeping.


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