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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In 1887 Thayer found the leitmotif for his most important painting. Defining art as “a no-man’s land of immortal beauty where every step leads to God,” the forefather of today’s raucous camouflage painted his 11-year-old daughter Mary as the personification of virginal, spiritual beauty, giving her a pair of wings and calling the canvas Angel. This was the first in a gallery of chaste, lovely young women, usually winged, but human nevertheless. Although Thayer sometimes added halos, these were not paintings of angels. The wings, he said, were only there to create “an exalted atmosphere”—to make the maidens timeless.

For Thayer, formal religion smacked of “hypocrisy and narrowness.” His God was pantheistic. Mount Monadnock, his field station for nature studies, was “a natural cloister.” He painted more than a dozen versions of it, all with a sense of looming mystery and “wild grandeur.”

Believing that his paintings were the “dictation of a higher power,” he tended to paint in bursts of “God given” creative energy. His personal standards were impossibly high. Driven by his admitted vice of “doing them better and better,” he was doomed always to fall short. Finishing a picture became horrendously hard. He was even known to go to the railroad station at night, uncrate a painting destined for a client and work on it by lantern light.

Such fussing sometimes ruined months or even years of work. In the early 1900s he began preserving “any achieved beauty” by retaining young art students—including my father—to make copies of his effects. Two, three and four versions of a work might be under way. Thayer compulsively experimented on all of them, finally assembling the virtues of each onto one canvas.

Though well aware of his quirks and weaknesses, young painters like my father and Fuertes revered Thayer almost as a flawed god. William James, Jr., described standing in Thayer’s studio before the winged Stevenson Memorial. “I felt myself to be, somehow, ‘in the presence.’ Here was an activity, an accomplishment, which my own world...had never touched. This could be done—was being done that very morning by this friendly little man with the distant gaze. This was his world where he lived and moved, and it seemed to me perhaps the best world I had ever met.”

The inspirational spell cast by Thayer also was experienced by a noted artist named William L. Lathrop. In 1906 Lathrop visited a show at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He wrote: “A big portrait by Sargent. Two portrait heads by Abbott Thayer. The Sargent is a wonderfully brilliant performance. But one finds a greater earnestness in the Thayers. That his heart ached with love for the thing as he painted, and your own heart straight away aches with love for the lover. You know that he strove and felt himself to have failed and you love him the more for the failure.”

While “the boys” copied the morning’s work, Thayer spent afternoons finding in nature a relief from his fervid preoccupations. He climbed Mount Monadnock, canoed and fly-fished on nearby Dublin Pond. To him each bird and animal was exquisite. He and his son, Gerald, collected bird skins in the Eastern United States, and as far afield as Norway, Trinidad and South America. By 1905 they had amassed a trove of 1,500 skins. Using a needle, Thayer would lift each feather into its proper position with infinite delicacy. “I gloat and gloat,” he once wrote. “What design!”

World War I devastated the 19th-century spirit of optimism that helped sustain Thayer’s idealism. The possibility of a German victory drew Thayer out of seclusion and spurred him to promote the application of his theories of protective coloration to military camouflage. The French made use of his book in their efforts, adapting his theories to the painting of trains, railroad stations, and even horses, with “disruptive” patterns. The word “camouflage” probably comes from the French camouflet, the term for a small exploding mine that throws up gas and smoke to conceal troop movement. The Germans, too, studied Thayer’s book to help them develop techniques for concealing their warships.

When the British were less enthusiastic, Thayer’s obsessiveness went into overdrive. He virtually stopped painting and began an extended campaign to persuade Britain to adopt his ideas, both on land and sea. In 1915 he enlisted the help of the great expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent, whose fame enabled him to arrange a meeting at the British War Office for Thayer. Traveling alone to England, Thayer failed to go to the War Office. Instead he toured Britain in a state of nervous overexcitement, giving camouflage demonstrations to friendly naturalists in Liverpool and Edinburgh in the hopes of mobilizing their support. This detour, it turns out, was largely a ploy to postpone what was always for him a paralyzing fear: facing an unsympathetic audience.

Finally Thayer arrived in London for the appointment. He was exhausted, confused and erratic. At one point, he found himself walking a London street with tears streaming down his face. Immediately he boarded the next ship for America, leaving behind at his hotel a package that Sargent took to the War Office.


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