Abbott Handerson Thayer


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Painter. Also a naturalist. An important contributor to the American Renaissance, he is known primarily for idealized figure compositions. He also painted portraits, landscapes, and occasional still lifes. His images of classically garbed women epitomize late nineteenth-century romantic exaltation of feminine virtue and beauty. Often outfitted with angelic wings, they are sometimes accompanied by children. Thayer brought to his landscapes a parallel yearning for spiritual escape from modern banality, as is especially evident in his depictions of New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock. Interested from childhood in wildlife, during the 1890s he gravitated once again toward this subject and in the last two decades of his life devoted much attention to artistic and scientific investigations of nature. This work resulted in notable observations on protective coloration in birds and animals. Born in Boston, as a small child he moved with his family to Woodstock, Vermont, and then to Keene, in southwest New Hampshire. There, in the nearby countryside, he developed affection for the wild creatures that provided his earliest painted subjects. Upon graduation from Boston's Chauncy Hall School in 1867, he rejoined his family in Brooklyn. There he began his professional training at the Brooklyn Academy of Design but switched in 1870 to the National Academy of Design. On the first and longest of several European sojourns, from 1875 to 1879 he lived in Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. Although Jean-Léon Gérôme ranked as his most important teacher, Thayer resisted the highly polished realism of his mentor, developing instead a painterly manner that became richer and looser with time. Following his return, he at first found success in New York as a portraitist but gradually turned his interest toward more generalized, symbolic figures, often relying on his family as models. His wife's protracted illness and eventual death in 1891 intensified Thayer's production of allegorical images, often based on High Renaissance prototypes. In 1901 Thayer returned permanently to the Keene area. He lived at Dublin, where he had previously maintained a studio, within view of Mount Monadnock. There he adopted a roughhewn way of life and poured much of his energy into wildlife studies. However, his interest in landscape painting also flourished. His images of Monadnock particularly reflect his intensely spiritual regard for nature, formed under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist writings. In these his brushwork became richly expressive, with passages of nearly abstract color, while compositions reflect the simplicity he admired in Japanese prints. With his son, in 1909 he published Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, summarizing the results of many years of investigation. Although challenged by some, Thayer's theories influenced the later development of military camouflage. An authority on birds, his son, Gerald Handerson Thayer (1883–1935), born at Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, was a painter and illustrator known for wildlife subjects. Thayer's second wife, painter Emmeline Buckingham Beach (1849/50–1924), known as Emma, specialized in flower still lifes and nature studies. They married in 1891.

Subjects: Art.

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