National Museum of American Art

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Abbott Thayer: The Nature of Art



"Abbott Thayer: The Nature of Art," a major exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), opened April 23, 1999 at the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art. The exhibition -- the first in 30 years to examine the work of this influential figure in 19th-century American art, famous for his images of angels and his eccentric personality -- runs through Sept. 6, 1999.

Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore, is Honorary Patron for this exhibition. The official Washington residence of the vice president was built in 1893 and since the Gores moved in has been decorated with art and photography from America's Gilded Age. "The Gilded Age is one of my favorite periods," said Mrs. Gore. "Living in a Victorian home built in that period has given me deeper appreciation for Thayer and his contemporaries."

"Angel" (1887), one of the most popular paintings in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Art, is a highlight of the exhibition. It appeared on the cover of TIME magazine's December 27, 1993, issue. "Caritas" (1894-95), an important early image rarely seen outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is also featured among the 61 works in the show.

"Thayer's art combines Renaissance idealism with a modern concern for science," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Museum of American Art. "He shows us how America in the Gilded Age was poised between a reverence for past traditions and a new empirical approach."

"The Nature of Art" presents paintings, watercolors, drawings and studies. The exhibition is arranged in four sections: "Portraits and Self-Portraits" traces Thayer's style from elegant early portraits to later psychological studies; "Ideal Figures" highlights Thayer's best known paintings of allegorical women; "Landscapes and Mount Monadnock" shows Thayer's vision of landscape as a powerful presence; "Still Life and Protective Coloration Studies" reveals his observations of detail and design in nature.

Thayer's introduction to the traditions of the Italian Renaissance and its classical ideals began with academic training in Paris under Jean-Leon Gerome at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Returning to New York in 1879, he established a successful career painting society portraits. His later portraits develop beyond likeness into the psychological examinations that would increasingly occupy him. "The Sisters" (1884), a double-portrait of Clara and Bessie Stillman, hints at a complex familial relationship in the unusually close placement of their bodies and their pensive expressions.

The illness and death of Thayer's beloved wife, Kate Bloede, inspired a new direction in his art. In the late 1880s, as her tuberculosis and depression worsened, he began painting their three children in classically inspired compositions that depict them as embodiments of perfection. Thayer's idealism was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalist writings and the concept of an ideal world existing beside the material world.

Thayer painted the first of his winged protective figures in 1887, "Angel," a luminous portrait of his eldest daughter Mary. In "Virgin Enthroned," painted in 1891 after his wife's death, Thayer's daughter appears as a Madonna-like figure watching over her siblings. Thayer often created large-scale paintings that served symbolically as "guardian angels." His homage to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, titled "Stevenson Memorial" (1903), features a pale brooding figure enveloped by darkness, seated on a rock marking Stevenson's grave. "Angel of the Dawn" (1919) celebrates the vitality of the New England coast, where Thayer helped establish a bird sanctuary; "Monadnock Angel" (1920-1921) commemorates his active role in Mount Monadnock's preservation as a state park.

"Thayer is a curious double-figure, a man of extremes and contradictions," said Richard Murray, senior curator at the Museum of American Art and organizer of the exhibition. "He embodied elegance and rusticity, enthusiasm and depression. The 'Stevenson Memorial' brings together much of his thinking about the polar extremes of darkness and light symbolizing the coexistence of madness and sanity and good and evil that were found in some of Stevenson's writings."

In 1901, after relocating his family to an artists' colony in Dublin, N.H., Thayer cultivated a rough persona and became disdainful of social conventions. He and his family slept outdoors and kept wild animals as household pets. However, he remained connected to the world of art and ideas, maintaining a lively correspondence with contemporaries such as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), patron Charles Lang Freer and President Theodore Roosevelt.

While living in New Hampshire, Thayer's interest in the natural world expanded to include scientific observations of animal camouflage, or "protective coloration." "Peacock in the Woods" (1907) illustrates Thayer's ideas of nature as an artist using color and shadow to disguise animals in the environment. With his son, Gerald, Thayer published his theories in Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909), and he promoted the idea of camouflage for soldiers and ships in World War I.

In his mature work, Thayer began exploring less traditional methods, leaving areas of the canvas exposed. Increasingly, he created heavily brushed, almost abstract areas of paint, sometimes using a palette knife. He used unconventional means to manipulate paint including a common broom or applying it directly from the tube. He might work on a single canvas for years, adding paint and scraping it away until he achieved the essence of his subject.

Thayer's deliberately unfinished canvases - -such as "Monadnock Angel"-- allow the viewer to experience the painting's creation. "Thayer was working with the modern notion that the key to understanding his paintings is in the process of their creation, much like the Abstract Expressionist ideas in the 1950s," said Murray.

The Museum of American Art is undertaking the first-ever detailed technical examination of Thayer's work. Initial X-rays and infra-red photographs of the museum's collection reveal different compositions and multiple signatures beneath the visible layer of paint. This new information will be used by scholars to establish relationships among paintings and will lead to new interpretations of Abbott Thayer's work.

All paintings are by Abbott Handerson Thayer unless otherwise indicated. Images from top to bottom (click on thumbnail images to enlarge them): Virgin Enthroned, 1891, oil, 72 5/8 x 52 1/2 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of John Gellatly; Spring Hillside, c. 1889, oil, 17 x 23 inches, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas A. Rosse; Woman in a Grecian Gown, c. 1894, oil resin, Phillips Academy, Addison Gallery of American Art, gift of anonymous donor; Stevenson Memorial, 1903, oil, 81 7/8 x 60 1/8 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of John Gellatly

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rev. 10/18/10

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