The current exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art entitled “Not Theories but Revelations”: The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer got me to thinking about Thayer, an exquisite painter and passionate naturalist. He was an important mentor to young artists—Rockwell Kent served as his apprentice, and Dennis Miller Bunker called him “The first great man I ever knew.” Thayer’s interest in animal coloration led to innovative theories on protective camouflage, a subject about which he argued publicly with President Theodore Roosevelt. He also spearheaded a successful effort to preserve his beloved Mt. Monadnock from commercial development. He was responsible for beautiful, if conventional, landscape and still life paintings, but was most emotionally invested in a corpus of images depicting classically-robed women, with wings.
In the winter of 1983 I was studying at the National Academy of Design School with Mary Beth McKenzie, when an exhibition of Thayer’s work landed at the Academy’s museum next door. Blessed by proximity, Mary Beth arranged for the class to spend a few weeks copying Thayer’s paintings. I don’t know how the other students felt, but for my part the opportunity engendered considerable excitement. The painting that fascinated me was The Sisters, a double portrait on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. My version was a conscientious if dry replication, but it’s the only oil copy I’ve kept in my studio, and is proof of a fondness for Thayer’s work that goes back more than thirty years.
Admitting a fondness for Thayer almost requires a qualifying statement, which I’ll get to shortly. Even during an era when the image of American femininity was relentlessly idealized, his angelic women went beyond the pale; he doubled down on the virginal trope by adorning otherwise realistic figures with large white wings. Thayer held dear an ideal of feminine purity, one which became entwined with a fascination for bird plumage. “Doubtless,” he explained, “my lifelong passion for birds has helped to incline me to work wings into my pictures; but primarily I have put on wings probably more to symbolize an exalted atmosphere (above the realm of genre painting) where one need not explain the action of the figures.” Although this indicates an impressively tangled subconscious, one cannot doubt the genuineness of his explanation. Among the small treasures of the Williamstown show is a painting of a wood duck, camouflaged in the surrounding landscape, an experiment in protective coloring theory carried out in paint. And Study of Alma Wollerman (Mrs. Gerald Thayer)—with the figure’s contours lost and found against an indeterminate background—appears to be cut from much the same pictorial cloth. Thayer’s interest in natural coloration dovetailed with the concurrent Tonalism movement in American painting.
In private, Thayer expressed fury at what he considered the abasement of women in popular culture. Writing of the characteristics that fashionable portrait painters seized upon, he railed against artists “stone blind to any attribute except fuckableness!” (Maybe I’m the only person who watched commercials for Victoria’s Secret with models clad in nothing save for underwear and enormous white wings, and imagined what would have been Thayer’s apoplectic response.) He liked his models beautiful, but swathed in an aura of purity to protect against erotic bias. One gets the impression that Thayer’s anxiety was less a reaction to the broader culture than an expression of his own conflicted feelings about women in particular, and his tumultuous nature in general. He referred to his tremendous mood swings as “the Abbott pendulum,” which would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
It’s this emotional tension that’s at the heart of Thayer’s painting, where it manifested in heavily overworked and incomplete passages. Themes that I’d find irredeemably cornball from any other artist are rescued both by Thayer’s prickly earnestness and his formal abilities as a draftsman and painter. His studio modus operandi was unique: Thayer would begin a figure and have an apprentice make a copy of it in an early stage, so that he could then alternate working on both canvases. Once, while struggling over a painting of a winged figure seated on a rock that would become a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, Thayer asked Rockwell Kent for his input. Kent later recalled:
With not too much conviction I offered my criticism. “Good!” said Thayer. “Now I’ll go out. You take my brushes and paint the rock the way you think it ought to be. And call me when you’ve finished.”…. So I went to work. And when I had done the best I could, I called Thayer back. Thayer was generous. “Yes,” he cried, “I think you’ve helped it.” Suddenly he cried, “Look! We’re both wrong—building it up little by little like that! God said, ‘let there be a rock’—and there it
was.” And picking up a broom he swept it right and left across the
painting. It did the trick.
Thayer didn’t give a lick for the immaculate surfaces that are as prized now as they were then. His unfinished Angel, in the current show, displays both his anachronistic obsession and a brisk handling we associate with the modern temperament. In a letter to a collector he explained, in part, that “my picture, though perhaps locally badly executed, owes the somewhat exalted position it holds to the fact that this imperfectly executed part was nevertheless, tuned to, harmonized with, every other part of the canvas.” He expressly forbade that his pictures ever be retouched. The variegated surfaces, creamy white passages, and thickly repainted areas, one impetuous thought supplanted by the next, were left by intent. It’s no wonder I like him. Abbott Thayer, painter of birds, mountains and winged women, will always be one of my guilty pleasures.
“Not Theories but Revelations:” The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer, is on display at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, until August 21, 2016.