Abbott Handerson Thayer was a bird-crazy boy who grew up to paint stunning pictures of angels — and to promote the military use of camouflage.
He was born on Aug. 12, 1849 in Boston, the son of a country doctor. He grew up near Keene, N.H., at the foot of Mount Monadnock, which he also painted to acclaim. Sometimes he painted an angel hovering over the mountain. That symbolized his efforts — ultimately successful — to protect the mountain from development.
Thayer dedicated his career to painting pictures of ‘the highest human soul beauty.’ He belonged to a small group of American painters who returned from Paris art schools in the late 19th century. They tended to depict beautiful young women as ‘timeless beauty.’
Abbott Handerson Thayer’s reputation grew during the 1880s. He was considered one of the finest painters of the human figure, and he had more commissions than he could handle — including portraits of Mark Twain and Henry James. He finished the painting above, a tribute to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, in 1909 in his studio in Dublin, N.H.
Abbott Handerson Thayer was opinionated and eccentric. He and his family slept outdoors year round to take advantage of fresh air. He wore long underwear in winter and gradually cut off the legs until summertime, when they became shorts.
Thayer developed an interest in camouflage as a boy observing animals’ protective coloration. Later in his life he wrote books on camouflage and tried to interest the military in his ideas. He is credited with being the first to write about disruptive patterning (he called it ‘razzle-dazzle’), which breaks up an animal’s outlines. He also wrote about masquerade, as when a creature mimics something in its environment. Thayer also identified countershading, such as how the white undersides of animals make them seem less round and less solid.
Eventually the military accepted his proposal for countershading U.S. ships.
By 1918 he was profoundly affected by the loss of young men to the influenza epidemic and to World War I. That sadness informs this 1918 painting, Boy and Angel. He considered it his finest work.
Abbott Handerson Thayer died May 29, 1921. John Singer Sargent remarked, “Too bad he’s gone. He was the best of them.”
With thanks to Smithsonian Magazine. This story was updated in 2017.