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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Today, at the end of the 20th century, angels are very much in vogue. Thayer’s Angel appeared on the cover of the December 27, 1993, issue of Time magazine, linked to an article titled “Angels Among Us.” These days angels are appearing in films, on TV, in books and on the Web. Today, too, art historians are looking receptively at the end of the 19th century. A major Thayer exhibition opens on April 23 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. Curated by Richard Murray, the show—which marks the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth—will run through September 6. In addition, the Freer Gallery will mount a small exhibit of Thayer’s winged figures starting June 5.

In 1991, during the Gulf War, I watched Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf hold televised press conferences in full camouflage regalia. Yes, Thayer did finally make his point with the military. But he sacrificed his health—and perhaps even his life—promoting what, in some respects, has now become a pop fad that announces rather than hides. Virtually no one knows that all that raiment is the enduring legacy of a worshiper of virginal purity and spiritual nobility. This probably delights Abbott Thayer.

Freelance writer Richard Meryman’s most recent book is Andrew Wyeth, A Secret Life, published by HarperCollins.


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