Abbott Handerson Thayer

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Abbott Handerson Thayer
Also Known as
Abbott H. Thayer
Abbott Thayer
Boston, Massachusetts 1849
Dublin, New Hampshire 1921
Active in
  • New York, New York
  • Scarborough, New York
U.S. States
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Artist Biography

Thayer's unusual Dublin, New Hampshire, house speaks volumes about the painter. Built in 1888 on land provided by Mary Amory Greene, a direct descendant of the colonial portraitist John Singleton Copley, the two-story building sported several screened-in porches and was surrounded by a number of sleeping huts—small lean-to structures that broke down the harriers of traditional Victorian domestic space and encouraged a rustic, almost wild atmosphere. The unruly house and unusual artist were not without their contradictions. To the right of the front door, mounted on a bracket, stood a copy of Daniel Chester French's famous bust of Ralph Waldo Emerson—a symbol of the intellectual rigor expected of family and guests. Thayer was the patriarch of an extended family of blood relations, servants, and models who became year-round residents of Dublin in 1901. His career had begun much earlier, first as an animal painter and then as a student at the National Academy of Design in New York and the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. At the latter, he studied under Jean Léon Gérôme. After Thayer returned from Paris (1879), he began painting ethereal women and children and writing about natural history, particularly the development of animal coloration. Lost in the wild or in his vision of idealized female form, Thayer sought an alternative to the banality of the modern world.

William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein, editors, with contributions by Dona Brown, Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Judith K. Maxwell, Stephen Nissenbaum, Bruce Robertson, Roger B. Stein, and William H. Truettner Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory (Washington, D.C.; New Haven, Conn; and London: National Museum of American Art with Yale University Press, 1999)

Luce Artist Biography

When Abbott Handerson Thayer turned eighteen, his family moved from Keene, New Hampshire, to Brooklyn, where the thriving art and literary scene fed his imagination. For a time Thayer studied in Paris, and soon after his return to New York his career prospered. But his wife, Kate, suffered from extreme depression, and Thayer struggled to sustain his inspiration without her emotional support. The loss of Kate remained a source of sadness and he looked for strength in his children, whom he painted as allegorical and religious figures. The family moved to Dublin, New Hampshire, where Thayer painted outdoors and wrote articles for professional journals on his theories of animal camouflage. In 1909 he coauthored with his son, Gerald, a book that became an important resource for camouflage techniques during World War I. (Murray, "Abbott Thayer's Stevenson Memorial," American Art, Summer 1999)