American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer is best known for his “angel paintings,” but his own life was anything but peaceful.
Art historians tell us that Thayer, a passionate naturalist, was highly opinionated, quite eccentric and suffered from severe mood swings that today would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. One of his controversial ideas, that all animals were created with colors and patterns that camouflaged or concealed them, was scorned by no less than President Theodore Roosevelt.
In a ground-breaking exhibit that opens Friday, the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, explores how Thayer’s ideas about camouflage in nature are revealed in his work.
“Not Theories but Revelations: The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer” presents the artist as a serious observer of the natural world and active player in debates on evolution and other hot topics of his day. His observations on the protective coloring of animals helped develop military camouflage of ships and uniforms in the U.S., France and Great Britain.
In the exhibit, we’ll see more than 40 works of art: his idealized portraits of young women with wings on their backs as well as landscapes, flowers and animals. The show includes many works that have never been seen in public, some of which remained sealed by Thayer until the museum unpacked them.
“Thayer is one of the most interesting but often overlooked artists of the early 20th century. He was wrestling with the big scientific and cultural questions of his era and discussing or arguing about them with figures like Mark Twain and President Roosevelt,” Kevin Murphy, WCMA curator of American Art, says in a press release.
Born in 1849, Thayer was the son of a country doctor and grew up in rural New Hampshire, at the foot of Mount Monadnock. At a young age, he became an amateur naturalist, and after studying John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” dabbled with taxidermy and paintings of animals in watercolor.
Thayer studied art in New York and Paris but returned to New Hampshire, where because of his fervent belief in the benefits of fresh air, his family slept outdoors in all seasons. Two of the artist’s five children died at a young age. The remaining three — Mary, Gerald and Gladys — often served as models for his portraits. Mary posed for “Angel,” his most famous painting, which now hangs in the Smithsonian.
Thayer died in Dublin, New Hampshire in 1929 at age 71.
“Not Theories but Revelations” runs through Aug. 21 and is accompanied by a 136-page catalog with images of all the artwork and an essay by Murphy.
At noon Tuesday, visitors can do a walk-through with Murphy. Admission is free.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or @bjorngazette on Twitter.