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 David Orville Reasoner  (1882 - )

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Lived/Active: Indiana/New York      Known for: landscape painting, camouflage art

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
David O. Reasoner (1882-?)

David O(liver) Reasoner was born in 1882 in Upland, Indiana. He attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where he graduated in 1909. In subsequent years, he studied painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

During World War I, Reasoner was employed by the U.S. Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation, as a civilian navy camouflage artist, in the course of which he applied camouflage designs to U.S. merchant ships. Records indicate that his assignment officially ended on December 15, 1918.

Around 1920, 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.

Around 1925, the Reasoners moved to Woodstock, New York. They became the parents of four children, Allen (who died during World War II), Jean (portrait painter Jean Reasoner Plunkett), Peggy and Richard.  According to a history page on the Woodstock Golf Club website, plans for that facility "began in 1928 with the formation of Woodstock Property, Inc. (WPI), founded by David O. Reasoner, an Indiana-born artist with a superb golf game. After selling stock in WPI Reasoner negotiated the purchase of 250 acres of farmland?WPI then leased the land to Woodstock Country Club, Inc. at a nominal fee. Reasoner presided over both WPI and the Country Club?" At about the same time, the Woodstock Playhouse was founded, under David Reasoner's management, a position that he continued to hold for at least the next few years. A solo exhibition of his wife's paintings was held at the Woodstock Country Club Tavern in August 1932.

Beginning in the spring of 1937, for about three years, the Reasoner family was almost nomadic, traveling across the country by station wagon, often camping out, and living intermittently at various locations in California (San Diego, Point Loma, Santa Barbara, Montecito, and Santa Monica). In June of 1940, when David Reasoner's mother became ill, they moved back to his hometown, Upland, Indiana, about 75 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

The U.S. entered WWII at the end of 1941. In early January, David Reasoner (leaving his wife to care for his ailing mother in Indiana) moved to Washington D.C., accompanied by his daughter Jean, in the hope that, given his experience in the previous war, he might once again find work as a ship camoufleur. In late January 1942, he met with artists Charles Bittinger (1879-1970), head of the U.S. Navy Research Department, and Everett Warner (1877-1963), both of whom had been involved in WWI camouflage. According to a Reasoner letter (in February 1942), he had been told by Bittinger that it was "just a question of time until there will be all-out marine camouflage," and that "when this happens, I  seem to be in line for the top job." But, according to a later letter (June 1942), he was eventually assigned not to camouflage but to "managerial duties": "Instead of camouflaging ships I find myself an impresario, secretary, and telephone operator."

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.

These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
David J. Reasoner was born in Indiana in 1882.  Reasoner was based in Boston in 1920.  While there, he studied with Abbott Thayer whose daughter he married.  He was a resident of Santa Barbara in 1939. 

Exh:  San Diego Art Guild, 1937.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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