Wednesday, August 15, 2007

In the Arms of the Angel

Abbott Handerson Thayer, born on August 12, 1849, painted two extreme visions. One vision of beautiful, idealized women and children bordering on religious experience (such as his 1889 transformation of his daughter Mary into Angel [above]) helped him deal with the sudden death of two children in the 1880s and the institutionalization and death of his wife in 1891. The other extreme vision was that of nature’s ability to camouflage itself for protection, such as Peacock in the Woods (below), from 1907. Thayer, known as “the father of camouflage,” thus becomes simultaneously one of the most spiritually accessible and yet hidden figures of American art.

Along with his son Gerald, Thayer published a major work on protective coloration in nature in 1909 that military experts later used in World War I when designing uniforms and transportation. Thayer’s powerful works of natural disguise (many of which can be found here from a 1999 exhibit at the Smithsonian) show his close observation of nature's wonder. Another painting of a copperhead snake hidden in a bed of leaves is simply amazing in its believability. Thayer studied in Paris with Jean-Leon Gerome, among others, and came away with an amazing naturalist technique to go with his innate spirituality. Thayer’s reading of German philosophy as well as his Transcendentalist bent went hand in hand with his love of nature and close observation of detail, perhaps as an escape from the sorrows of his own life. Rockwell Kent, another artist steeped in Transcendentalism, served as Thayer’s apprentice at one time.

Thayer’s family stood as the other escape from the tragedy of his life. In Virgin Enthroned (above) from 1891, the year of his wife’s death, Thayer paints his oldest daughter Mary (from the Angel above) with her siblings Gladys and Gerald, whom Mary raised as a second mother after their mother’s death. Mary becomes the Virgin Mary here, idealizing her youthful beauty as well as her virtuous dedication to her family. Sadly, Thayer himself suffered from bipolar disorder, struggling with depression while always reaching for the heights of idealistic, spiritual joy. Nothing can disguise how beautiful his paintings and the soul of their creator are.

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