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Abbott Thayer

 (1849 - 1921)
Abbott Handerson Thayer was active/lived in New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts.  Abbott Thayer is known for female figure, portrait and landscape painting, camouflage art.

Abbott Thayer

Biography from the Archives of askART

Around 1920, David Reasoner and two other Boston artists (Henry O'Connor (1891-1975) and Frederick Rhodes Sisson (1893-1962)) became apprentices and assistants to Abbott Handerson Thayer at the well-known painter's home and studio in Dublin, New Hampshire. Thayer's publications about the "concealing coloration of animals" had influenced the development of Allied wartime camouflage during WWI.  In various sources, Reasoner, O'Connor and Sisson have been described as Thayer's "copyists" (they made precise duplicates of his unfinished paintings, from which he then went on to make different finished versions). Also cited as an assistant in Thayer's studio was a painter named Grace Dredge (1895-?), originally from Des Moines, Iowa.

Thayer's health (both physical and mental) was declining rapidly in the winter of 1920-1921, and according to Gladys (called Galla) Thayer, the artist's daughter, it was primarily David Reasoner who attended to Thayer's needs and "toward the end did little besides take care of him."

"In the spring of 1921," as described in Ross Anderson's biography, "while resting in bed Thayer asked an assistant [Reasoner] to bring him one of his unfinished canvases and his palette and brushes. As he began to work, his hand suddenly stiffened, evidence of a slight stroke. He suffered two more within the next three weeks, and died from a third on May 29, 1921."

Years later, Reasoner provided his own account of Thayer's last weeks in a 1948 news article in The Kingston [New York] Daily Freeman, in which the following text appears: "Even on his [Abbott Thayer's] deathbed, painting was uppermost on his mind. The family physician had told [David] Reasoner 'It won't be long. He might last the day out.' Thayer had been working on a picture promised for shipment to a New York gallery. The elderly man asked Dave to bring up the picture from the studio. It was set up where he could see it from his bed. He then required Dave to darken a small area near the bottom. 'No, a little higher—now a little to the left. No, no, come and help me over to it.' Any movement would likely be his last, but Reasoner knew he would try to do it alone if he didn't help so he practically carried Thayer to the spot that needed darkening. It is said that half the time, Thayer worked paint with his thumb instead of a brush, and the thumb had a beat as regular as a metronome after fifty years of use."

Somewhat curiously, there is a public record that Grace Dredge became married to David Reasoner's brother, Lyman Reasoner, in Keene, New Hampshire (a dozen miles from Dublin) on May 28, 1921, the day before Thayer's death. She took on the married name of Grace Dredge Reasoner (and later, Grace Reasoner Clark). Ten days later, on June 6, 1921(according to an Indiana University alumni note), David Reasoner and Gladys Thayer were also married.

Following Thayer's death (based on correspondence in the Thayer Family Papers in the Archives of American Art), it appears that Thayer's son, Gerald (called Gra) Handerson Thayer, was initially the executor of Thayer's estate. Somewhat later, due to a complex set of circumstances, the role of executor was shifted to David Reasoner.

It appears that, at a certain point, Gladys Thayer Reasoner moved to Washington, D.C., where she died in August 1945. David Reasoner's mother, Louanna, remained in Indiana and died in 1948.

In a letter dated October 4, 1949, David Reasoner (on behalf of the Thayer Estate) donated to the Smithsonian Institution 96 sketches, photographs, watercolor studies, demonstration models, and paintings "made by my father-in-law [Abbott Thayer] is his study of protective coloration in the animal kingdom."

Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer Family Papers at the website of the Archives of American Art (Smithsonian Institution), Research Collections (includes 10,074 online image and document scans, with numerous letters and other materials pertaining to David Reasoner).

"Alumni Notes" (David Reasoner entry), in Indiana University Alumni Quarterly. Vol 8 No 4, October 1921, p. 528.

Ross Anderson, Abbott Handerson Thayer. Exhibition catalog. Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum, 1982.

"Artist Discovers Rare Self-Portrait by Thayer," in The Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston, New York). December 14, 1948, pp. 1 and 17.

Roy R. Behrens, Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2009.

"Gladys Reasoner to Hold Exhibition," in The Kingston Daily Freeman, July 25, 1932, p. 6.

Nelson C. White, Abbott H. Thayer: Painter and Naturalist. Hartford: Connecticut Printers, 1951.


Written and submitted by Roy R. Behrens, Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar, University of Northern Iowa.

Biography from the Archives of askART
Known primarily for his ethereal angel figures and idealized young women, Abbott Thayer also painted landscapes and delicate florals.  Asked to join the Ten American Painters, a rebellion in 1897 of established New York and Boston artists defying traditionalism for Impressionism, he refused because he could not commit to the demands of regular production for exhibitions nor to their needs for organizational skills for which he was noted.  His few surviving still lives are Impressionist in style with diffused light.

He had a distinguished career on the East Coast, first in Boston, then upstate New York, and from 1901 in Dublin, New Hampshire. His work evolved from literal to spiritual levels and from realistic to abstract. He also had a lifelong interest in animals' protective coloration and developed theories of camouflage, first used in World War I.

Thayer was born in Boston to a prominent family and attended the Chauncey Hall School, founded by his grandfather. His art teacher there was Henry Morse from whom he learned to do animal portraits.

From 1867 to 1875, he studied at the Brooklyn Academy of Design with Lemuel Wilmarth, and after marrying Kate Bloede whose father was a distinguished German intellectual, he went to Paris for a year, as a student of Jean Leon Gerome.

In 1879, he opened a studio in Brooklyn in the same building as the studios of Thomas Dewing and Daniel Chester French. He became president of the Society of American Artists but resigned, deciding to move to Cornwall-on-Hudson to raise his family.

For the next decade he lived and painted in the Hudson River Valley. His early portraits were academic and realistic, but became increasingly alluring with young women posed in light dresses against dramatic backgrounds.

In 1890, the mental illness and death of his wife from tuberculosis caused him to paint a series of idealized, angelic women, and from that time he did many psychological studies including self portraits. Her family had introduced him to the romantic world of music and literature, and losing her caused him extreme introspection. He found comfort in transendentalism and the idea of a peaceful, ideal eternity.

In 1901, he moved to Dublin, New Hampshire where he joined a colony of artists and lived at the foot of Mount Monadnock. He maintained a lively correspondence with friends including Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and Charles Lang Freer. He married a long-time friend, Emma Beach, and built a family compound where he painted portraits of friends, meditative views of the mountain, and a series of angels that seemed very human and were symbolic of his family and his need to protect people, animals, and places he loved.

He became a strong advocate of conservation and founded the Thayer Fund, which paid for the establishment of bird sanctuaries throughout the east coast region.

His last years were devoted to painting Mount Monadnock in a variety of personalities, and his style became increasingly abstract. He died on May 29 in Dublin, and his family scattered his ashes on Mount Monadnock.

Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peter Hastings Falk (editor), Who Was Who in American Art
William Gerdts, American Impressionism

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About  Abbott Thayer

Born:  1849 - Boston, Massachusetts
Died:   1921 - Dublin, New Hampshire
Known for:  female figure, portrait and landscape painting, camouflage art