239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
112
 | 
July 31, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

Abbott Thayer, Father of Camouflage

“OH, ABBOTT, DON’T DO THAT!” George De Forest Brush cried, “DON’T!” He stood in his studio in front of his latest perfectly-rendered masterpiece. Abbott Thayer, as was usual, had come to give his opinion on the work. “George,” he said, “I think that there’s a place on that picture where it would be much better if you lowered the tone of it a little bit.” Abbott had just licked his thumb, rubbed it on the dirty floor, and had raised it to the picture ready to lower its tone.

Abbott Handerson Thayer and Brush were best friends. They had studied together in New York and Paris. Unlike Brush, Abbott did not approve of the paintings of
Jean-Léon Gérôme: he considered Gérôme to belong to “that raft of whore painters,” given that Gérôme often painted nudes. Brush was so enamored of his teacher that he named his son Gerome. Abbott, however, named his first son Ralph Waldo.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings inspired Thayer. In Emerson’s 1836 essay, “Nature,” he writes: “I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which angels might share.” It was a sentiment that defined Emerson’s Transcendentalism: the presence of God as reflected in the everyday displays of nature, a way of thinking that resonated with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood on the lawn near Day-Spring one day, looking at the view over the hills. “When a man observes the wafting of the breeze,” he said, “hears the rustling of the leaves and sees the swaying of the trees, it is as though all are praising and acknowledging the one true God.”

Abbott Thayer’s fame spread as a painter of the ideal figure. He gave them wings, and they came to be known as “Thayer’s Angels.” Their soft flowing robes mimicked the drapery of Grecian figures and their perfection set into relief the harsh world Thayer saw around him. They were pure and virginal; it was poor, dirty, and greedy.

Later on, Thayer set aside his figures and concentrated on the beauty and grandeur of Dublin and Mount Monadnock. He described what “art” meant to him: “a no-man’s land of immortal beauty where every step leads to God.”

Abbott Thayer and his family live in a house without insulation, built as a summer retreat. His first wife, Kate, had died of an infectious disease, so Thayer makes his family sleep outdoors in three-sided huts even while the snow falls.

Every morning for three hours Abbott works in his studio, humming Beethoven. He passes his work to his students and then roams the countryside, climbing up to his beloved mountain or rowing his boat on the lake. As an ornithologist, Abbott had traveled the world collecting bird specimens, and had formulated the technique of countershading, and “Thayer’s Law” of protective coloration in nature. He is sometimes called the “Father of camouflage.”

Abbott Thayer is a man of charm, grace, and warmth on his days of “allwellity,” but he battles mood swings every day, which he calls “the Abbott pendulum.” Many evenings you can hear a violin playing Beethoven to lull the family to sleep.

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  • JOnEs

    It seems that as much as we try to capture nature – there is no substitute for the real thing.
    As much as we would like capture the fragrance and delicacy of a rose or the song of a bird on canvas or film or prose - it is futile. Better to go outside away from the city and take a real close look at what we have then take a photo and maybe you will remember the fragrence and song for a while

  • Esther Bradley-DeTally

    I was troubled by the line, “Abdu’l Baha may have approved of Thayer’s lifestyle,” and didn’t FB this post.  I found it disconcerting because perhaps people didn’t have to live in unheated house, and that Thayer might have been a fanatic in requiring his family to live in such a manner, and overly dominant too.  That may have worked for the times, but the readership might question this on FB-thinking what is this Faith all about, they could distort what Abdu’l Baha may have liked.  I love the posts; the writing excellent; sometimes i feel you are soomewhat offtrack in pulling what’s happening and what Abdu’l-Baha is doing -more transition? I don’t know; Easy to comment, much, much harder for you to write.  I hope this doesn’t sound too critical, but I felt a caution arise.

    • 239Days

      The editorial team greatly appreciated reading your comments, and made changes to the article with them in mind. Our hope with 239 Days is to write about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in an accurate and compelling way, and also about the country and people he encountered in 1912. To that end, we are always open to thoughtful input like yours. 

      Corey

  • RBulling_47

    It is interesting to me, as a person who has learned a great deal about manic depression, that Mr. Thayer describes his affliction as “The Abbott Pendulum”. If you have a loved one battling this affliction, often called bipolar disorder, you know that it affects judgement, and the family suffers the consequences. Advancements have been made in research, medicine, and psychotherapy that help patients manage this illness, so they can have more days of “allwellity” as Mr. Thayer called them. It reminds me that the Master, and the Guardian always urged people who inquired about illnesses to seek out the best medical help they could find. They also always recommended prayer and meditation. Living in the country would be ideal, where one can escape from some of the stresses caused by city living. Music and the arts also helped Mr. Thayer cope with his illness. There remains much to be accomplished to alleviate the suffering of those of us who have illnesses of the mind.

    • Karridine

       Excellent observation, well put, RBulling…

  • kim

    absolutely!

  • Johnsonsnow

    I’m not sure where the writer got their facts.. perhaps not going for that.  

    But the ‘raft of whore painters’ had nothing to do with Gerome and nudes.  He wrote that about Bonnard and Boldini for how they painted female sitters.  

    While sure, I’ve never seen a nude Thayer, I don’t expect it from someone who enjoys portraiture more than narrative and who paints their family most of the time.  Thayer was looking for wonderful expression and beauty, Bonnard was a raft of whore painter who only managed to grasp the sitters ‘fuckableness’ as Thayer said.  It was about painting, not about some stupid issue with nudity.  That idea is very grade school and shows a complete lack of understanding about painting in general, also makes Thayer look like an idiot which he was not. 

    • 239Days

      Thanks for the contribution, Johnsonsnow. Your comments will be passed on to the author and someone from the project may reply specifically to your points once they’ve had a look. As a side note, this is a family blog, so we have to keep the language G-rated… even if it’s a direct quote. It, therefore, was edited out of your post.