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 Polly Ethel Thayer  (1904 - 2006)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts      Known for: portrait, figure, floral and landscape painting

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Ad Code: 3
Polly Ethel Thayer
from Auction House Records.
Seated Woman in Yellow Shawl
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known as Polly, Ethel Thayer was active as a portrait, landscape and still-life painter in Boston in the early 20th century, working at Fenway Studios from 1932 to 1936.  Her mediums were watercolor, pastel, and lithography, and her style began as Boston School academic and changed to progressive modern, many of them naive in the tradition of Henri Rousseau.

Thayer was born in Boston, the daughter of Professor Ezra Thayer, who was Dean of the Harvard Law School.  Her art studies included drawing at the Museum School of the Fine Arts in Boston, private lessons with Philip Hale, and lessons in Provincetown in the 1920s with Charles Hawthorne and in the summer of 1933 with Hans Hofmann. She also attended Le Grande Chaumiere in Paris in 1928, and in 1931, the Art Students League in New York as a student of lithographer Harry Wickey.  In 1932 she studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France, and in the 1940s with Carl Nelson of Boston.

In 1929, Thayer won the First Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy of Design, an honor designated for American artists under the age of 35.  Her entry was a large nude titled Circles.  The next year, a self portrait, Interlude, won the gold medal at the Boston Tercentenary Art Exhibition.

She married Donald C. Starr in 1933.  He was a yachtsman who interrupted his circumnavigation of the globe to marry Thayer in Genoa, and he resumed his trip after a three-month honeymoon in Europe.  From the time of her marriage her social and family life, including the raising of two children, took precedence over her art career.

She was a member of the Boston Artists Club, the Copley Society, and a part of the circle of artists active with Mary Bradish Titcomb.

A Studio of Her Own by Erica Hirschler

Biography from Vose Galleries:
Poetry of Hand and Spirit: Polly Thayer (Starr) by Dorothy Koval whol lives with her artist husband, Dominic, in Vermont. She has researched the family papers of William Lloyd Garrison, Robert Grosvenor Valentine and Zoltan Haraszti. She is currently co-authoring Vanderbilt Scion, Memoirs of a Modern Knight Errant, with Harry C. Cushing IV. A friend of the Starr family since childhood, she began working with Polly Thayer in 1997.

"I want to see with my whole being, and to communicate what I experience. William Blake called it seeing through the eye rather than with the eye: instead of superimposing my own expectations on a subject, I seek what the form will reveal of essence, what the visible will tell me of the invisible. It is an effort that requires intense, prayerful attention, but if the seeing is honest and the hand is well trained, a revelation will emerge. The reward is bliss."?Polly Thayer (2001)

Polly Thayer's quest has been to see into the heart of things. For the better part of a century she has tirelessly sought to understand the nature and effects of seeing, as well as to coax her own highly-trained hand into locating and conveying what she calls the invisible within the visible, the enduring spirit within each expression of what we see as reality.

Born Ethel Randolph Thayer in 1904, Polly, as she has been called all her life, was raised in Boston's Back Bay when it was still so rural that her parents could take daily horseback rides in the Fenway. Each spring the family moved by carriage to their farm in Hingham, where Polly, her brother Jim and sister Eleanor took boundless delight in the goings-on of the farm creatures and the offerings of nature.

Her beloved father, Ezra Ripley Thayer, who was Dean of Harvard Law School, died when she was eleven, and her widowed mother, the former Ethel Randolph Clark, who came from a line of ministers, occupied herself increasingly with religious and charitable affairs. Noticing her daughter's fascination with a group of students drawing from casts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Mrs. Thayer arranged for her to take drawing lessons with Beatrice Van Ness, herself a recent graduate of the Museum School. Polly threw herself into the activity with such enthusiasm that her teacher could hardly see the child for the charcoal.

Thayer graduated from the Westover Boarding School in Middlebury, Connecticut, and briefly considered a career in acting. She joined Harvard's Cercle Français and the Footlights Club in Jamaica Plain, acting in semi-professional productions of George Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and The Lion" and Molière's "Tartuffe." But painting was clearly her passion and she decided to enter the School of Painting at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Before beginning classes, Thayer went with her mother and brother on a voyage to China, Korea and Japan. On September 1, 1923, as they about to leave Yokohama, their ship "shivered like a human thing in pain," and suddenly the pier broke apart and was swallowed by the ocean. The greatest recorded earthquake in Japanese history had just struck, leveling Tokyo and Yokohama. In the ensuing days their ship, the Empress of Australia, was converted to a hospital and the nineteen-year-old Thayer found herself tending the dead and dying. The experience remained with her as a touchstone of authenticity both in life and art.

Directly after returning to Boston Thayer entered the Museum School and took Anatomy and Life Drawing with Philip Hale. She remembered:"You did a nude in a week, and you worked all day on it, as far as I can remember, each day . . . You established the form in the first two days, then you carved the detail for the next four. It was a regular system on every one . . . You were given a ruler and a piece of paper the size, as you held it up, of what you saw on the model stand. And you cut off that little strip of paper, thumbtacked it to your ruler, and then divided it into seven and a half heads. Then you reproduced that on your paper, so you were establishing your exact points . . . Your drawing would be as faithful as it could possibly be made, using the plumb line and diminishing glass and this ruler with the paper on it. That took quite a while.

The next fall she enrolled in Leslie Thompson's class on portraiture, but soon became dismayed by what she believed was too simplistic an approach: "Paint what you see, like a child," he insisted. She later remarked, "It did not commend itself to me, when I got to thinking about it, that I should turn off processes that seemed to me important, such as the intellectual or the thoughtful . . . My difficulty from the start was to put together what the teachers were telling me to do ? to copy exactly what I saw ? and still to fulfill the desire I knew was in me to say something about it . . . . Painting, for me, was a way of understanding what I saw."

Upon learning that Hale was willing to give her private lessons, Thayer left the Museum School after a year and a half. Under Hale, Thayer mastered the conventions of professional academic painting that were considered hallmarks of the Boston style, but she wanted to know more about color and composition. With an artist friend she rented a fish-house over the water in Provincetown for a summer to study with Charles Hawthorne. Hawthorne taught his students to capture large blocks of light and dark and had them paint in full sunlight with a putty knife. Thayer enjoyed the sense of matière she gained from the thick paint, and recognized that Hawthorne had keyed up her palette.

Over the next few years Thayer traveled extensively. She spent a winter with her mother in Paris, studying at the Académie Colarossi, and toured Italy with landscape architect Rose Nichols. In 1929, she sailed to Morocco. The trip was cut short by acute appendicitis, but not before she received word that the National Academy of Design in New York had bestowed the prestigious First Hallgarten Prize on her painting "Circles", now in the collection of the New Britain Museum of Art.

The next spring she followed the advice of Royal Cortissoz, art historian and critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who had recommended that she study Velasquez at the Prado in Madrid. She learned much from Velasquez, but the voice that spoke to her most directly was that of Goya. She felt he painted what mattered, and copied his work many times trying to decipher its significance. From Spain Thayer moved on to Paris and sublet the studio of American painter Waldo Pierce, near the Chambre des Députés. She studied briefly in the atelier of cubist painter Andre l'Hôte and then settled down to work on models of her own choice, with her newly-acquired Siamese kitten, Hunya, for company.

She wrote back to the States: "I have met people in Paris who for the first time in my life make me realize . . . the riches a tradition and an older civilization can dower on society. Art, as I never dreamed it could be, is a daily and vital interest ? it is more important than business, than politics, than eating even! You can not think what the effect of it is when always among a group of my fellows at home I have had to keep my greatest interests hooded, or if I mentioned painting it was only to bore, as 'talking shop' or 'being precious.'"

From 1930 to 1933, Thayer spent winters in New York City, where she began to struggle against the limitations of her Boston School training. "Wheels [John Wheelwright] took me around all Friday to exhibitions," she wrote to her mother. "I don't know what to think. . . . the new is harder to swallow than a large oyster."

Eugene Speicher came to her studio just as she was beginning work on a large double nude in the Boston School manner. "Get out on the streets!" he exhorted. "Get into the subway! Get into the park! Get some life into it!" She went to wrestling matches and even asked a doctor friend to get her into an operating theater. "To see the living organs pushing up uncovered out of a woman's body . . . I forgot everything in the wonder of it."

Thayer won a gold medal from the Boston Tercentenary Exhibition mounted at Horticultural Hall in 1930 for her self-portrait Interval. In that same year her first solo exhibition opened at Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston. One reviewer declared that it "surely settles her status as one of the foremost painters in the country, especially notable in portrait painting but evidently gifted with that kind of genius which is not circumscribed." The exhibition brought in commissions for eighteen portraits, many of which were shown the following year at Wildenstein's Gallery in New York.

Stimulated by her success, Thayer took a course with Harry Wickey at the Art Students' League in New York, and reached, in her own words, ". . . a turning point . . . . Wickey took my first drawing and slashed into it. He marked it all over to show me plastic values ? that there was something that went on between the outlines other than just dark and light. Suddenly to realize another dimension was very exciting. The heavens opened." Forms and spaces had become "not merely abstract relationships, but . . . powerful psychological currents which helped animate and unify the entire composition."

Thayer realized that she had much both to learn and to unlearn. With renewed interest she studied the penetrating portraits of Thomas Eakins, which seemed to her next to Goya's in eloquence, and tried to integrate Wickey's formal lessons, as well as Eakins', into her own work. Still seeking a more thorough knowledge of composition, Thayer spent the summer of 1932 studying with Jean Despujols in Fontainebleau. She was struck by his contention that an artist could not give equal weight to value, line and color. She explains:"There's a French saying, tout dire, c'est ennuyer. If you're saying everything, you're a bore. Things that you see aren't sharp against each other, they're blurred. You only sharpen the ones that you want to look at. . . . If you want to make a statement, then you need to focus on some one point in it. I began to understand the importance of that."

At the academy in Fontainebleau, Thayer met Neyan Stevens, a dashing fellow art student who had been born in Egypt, studied magic with the Moroccans, and traveled around the world. Stevens elucidated for Thayer the paintings of Van Gogh which, "to a Boston-trained artist . . . looked wildly distorted." Before returning home, Thayer spent a week at the 15th-century Abbaye de Pontigny, which had been converted to a retreat by a group of scholars. The week made a profound impression on her. Association with serious intellectual activity, she assured her mother, "helps work just like hearing good music."

Thayer returned to New York in 1933. Her subjects over the next decade included writers, poets, actors and artists, among them, Judith Anderson, Jacques Barzun, Maurice Evans, Lewis Galantiere, Robert Hale, two generations of Howes, May Sarton, John Wheelwright and Agnes Yarnall. For some years Thayer had been close to Donald Starr, a Boston lawyer and man of many talents who had been at Harvard with her brother. In spite of their mutual attraction, she was hesitant to enter into marriage, unwilling to put less than her whole heart into either marriage or career, and uncertain as to how well the two could co-exist. She communicated her fears to him in a letter from Paris: "I have been working like a dog . . . and for the first time feel a power in me that, if I have the strength, I can make grow. . . . How much it amounts to I don't know and I fear, and sometimes it almost makes me face abandoning it, that the handwriting on the wall reads that only what you are is what counts."

In 1932 Starr resigned his post as Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts to sail around the world with several friends in a schooner he had built for the purpose. A year and a half later Thayer went to meet him in Genoa, Italy. She had deliberated long enough; the couple married and spent their honeymoon in Paris. Donald rejoined the Pilgrim to finish his circumnavigation, while Thayer, whose tendency to seasickness made her an unenthusiastic sailor, steamed home directly. The couple built a summer home on land which had been given them by Thayer's mother from the farm in Hingham. Donald, hoping to introduce his wife to the joys of cruising, took her on a sailing trip in 1936. After two weeks Thayer asked to be put ashore: "I wanted to kiss the ground. I'd never felt about the land as I did then . . . . I wanted to celebrate it, praise it."

She settled herself at a small inn and painted landscapes for ten days straight. The same summer, Neyan Stevens and May Sarton visited the Starrs, and Sarton posed for both painters. Thayer's portrait, now owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, conveys the sharp intelligence of her sitter using a more modern idiom than she had used previously. She flattened the shapes of Sarton's clothes and heightened the poet's gaze by keeping her face very pale with only a hint of shadows.

Back in Boston Thayer joined the Painters' Workshop, a group of artists who met to analyze techniques and materials. It was during the course of their professional discussions that she identified a technique she had been seeking for years: "Reubensian underpainting, in grisaille, and then glazing the color over it! That was how to get the luminosity of the shadows without losing the color." No longer would she blend adjacent pigments to form shadows that reminded her of mud. Instead, her darkness would reflect the light at the heart of the painting, through layers of modulated transparent glazes.

The demands on Thayer's time and energy increased. Her daughters Victoria and Dinah were born in 1940 and 1945. In 1942, she became a member of the Society of Friends, which, having no hierarchy, relies upon its members to devote many hours to their Meeting's activities. Moreover, she had a gregarious husband who loved travel, sports, and club life. Nevertheless, in a solo show at Vose Galleries in 1950 she showed thirty works including portraits, landscapes and several finely-detailed renditions of flowers and small animals. Over the next decade she had exhibitions in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Around this period Thayer was given a jeweler's loupe. "It was a watershed," she recalled: "As a child I had been shown how to pat bees. It was always a thrill for me, and, to judge by the purr-like vibrations the stroking generated, for the bees as well. But I had no idea of the bronze wings' beaded hinges imbedded in the delicious fur jacket, or the jewelry of their articulation, until I studied them under the loupe's magnification." She focused increasingly on elements of nature, fascinated by the construction of insects and plants. Although she was still accepting portrait commissions, her pursuit of meaning centered on flowers, which had become for her a direct bridge to the invisible.

In the early 1960s, the Starrs bought a summer house on Martha's Vineyard, conveniently situated for Donald's sailing. Donald too had begun painting, and they both enjoyed "Painters' Weekends" at Naushon Island where her cousin Edward Forbes had a summer home. Alternately they joined Charles Hopkinson at Sharksmouth, his home on the North Shore. Thayer continued to paint at Sharksmouth even after Hopkinson's death in 1962, often pairing the massive worn rocks with an almost calligraphic rendering of the delicacy of water that had shaped them.

Thayer learned in the early 1970s that she had glaucoma and macular degeneration. She would learn to see in ways she had not yet imagined. She reflected on the imperative of art in her life:"I find there are secrets, certain noumenous things, that seem to speak to me in a special sense, signaling in a language that compels decoding. To be faithful to this task demands absolute attention . . ."

In winter she drew white cyclamen blossoms, whose pristine recurved petals were sometimes splashed with red at the heart. In summer she delved into irises and zinnias that bloomed in her garden. The graphite and charcoal of her early training gave way to rich pastels. Some flowers were fully formed and lavish, with pale golden throats and bees and vibrant backgrounds, and some were almost abstract in the simplicity of their lines and planes. At times Thayer's subjects underwent a kind of transfiguration: "A process takes over like automatic writing, impossible to describe, an entering into the person or creature or thing you are depicting. You feel you have succeeded if you have captured its essence, revealed its source in the ground of being. The object is transformed in the process - the Queen Anne's Lace becomes a burning bush, the cyclamen is seen leaping joyously toward the sun, the fish's eye is the eye of God."

At the age of eighty-seven, when it was clear that her eyesight would not permit her to commit her observations to paper for much longer, Thayer undertook two of the most precise and poetic projects she had ever attempted. The first was a sequence of delicate drawings depicting the life cycle of the thistle. In the more than two dozen pieces that comprise it, all drawn directly from nature, no shadow falls between vision and reality; they are equally literal and metaphysical ? unsentimental examinations of birth, growth and death, light and darkness, evanescence and recurrence. The second was a final portrait of herself. The physical skills she had challenged and honed for seven decades were at the command now not only of an eye, but of a soul which looked through the eye ? and acknowledged both its own strength and its fragility.

Thayer loves to quote the words of the Japanese artist Hokusai, written at the age of 75:"I have drawn things since I was six. All that I made before the age of sixty-five is not worth counting. At seventy-three I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds and insects. At ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At a hundred and ten everything, every dot and dash, will live.

Today, although Thayer's physical vision has diminished, her anticipation of insight is as keen as ever. "You never achieve what you want," she admits, "but you're always getting nearer to the essence . . . . And that's a search that is all important."

A note on sources: Unless otherwise indicated, the manuscript materials referred to here are in the possession of Polly Thayer. The general tenor of this essay is the result of many discussions since 1997 in which I have been privileged to participate while working on Thayer's papers. In 1995 and 1996 Robert Brown interviewed the artist for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. A few quotations from these interviews have been amended by Thayer in the interest of clarity. Wendy Swanton has catalogued Thayer's work and is currently compiling the artist's exhibition history.

Although named for her mother and sometimes referred to as Ethel in reviews or exhibition catalogues, she was always called Polly by friends and family. Eventually she legally changed her first name from Ethel to Polly. After her marriage she sometimes used the name Polly Thayer Starr in announcements and catalogues, but always signed her work Polly Thayer.

School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 1923-1925
Private Study with Philip Hale 1925-1928
Charles Hawthorne, Provincetown ca. 1925
Académie Colarossi, Paris Atelier André L'Hôte, Paris
Art Students League, New York, 1931, 1932
The Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts, France 1932
Hans Hoffman, Provincetown, 1933
Carl Nelson, Boston, 1948

Selected Honors and Awards
First Julius Hallgarten Prize, 104th Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1929
Gold Medal, Boston Tercentenary Exhibition, Horticultural Hall, 1930
Burton Emmett Memorial Exhibitor, Contemporary Arts Gallery, New York, 1941
First Honorable Mention, 25th Annual Members Exhibit, Springfield Art League, Springfield, 1953

Permanent Collections:
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA
Art Complex Museum, Duxbury, MA
Boston Athenaeum, Boston, MA
Boston Public Library, Department of Prints and Drawings, MA
Brown University, Providence, RI
De Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA
Eliot House, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Langdell Library, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA
Museum of Art at Brigham Young, Provo, UT
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA
Mystic Art Association, Mystic, CT
New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, MA
Sweetbriar College, Sweetbriar, VA
Williams College, Williamstown, MA
Westbrook College, Portland, ME

Selected Exhibitions
SoloDoll and Richards Gallery, Boston, MA, 1930, 1935
The Boston City Club, Boston, MA, 1931
Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, NY, 1932
Guild of Boston Artists, Boston, MA, 1932
Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, PA, 1936
Grace Horne Galleries, Boston, MA, 1938
Contemporary Arts, New York, NY, 1941
Vose Galleries, Boston, MA, 1950
Childs Gallery, Boston, MA, 1955, 1963
Sessler Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 1956
Pietrantonio Galleries, New York, NY, 1964
Chilton Club, Boston, MA, 1965
Boston Public Library, Boston, MA, 1969
Copley Society of Boston, Boston, MA, 1981, 1994, 1996
Latrelle Brewster, Locust Grove, GA, 1997
Friends Meeting Center, Cambridge, MA, 1995, 1996
Brookhaven at Lexington, Lexington, MA, 1997
GroupPennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
National Academy of Design, New York, NY
National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, New York, NY
Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, Hartford, CT
Springfield Art League, Springfield, MA
Copley Society of Boston, Boston, MA
Guild of Boston Artists, Boston, MA
Boston Art Club, Boston, MA
Boston Institute of Modern Art, Boston, MA
Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO
Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, Norfolk, Virginia
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Collins, Jim and Glenn B. Opitz (eds.). Women Artists in America: 18th Century to the Present (1790-1980). Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo, 1980.

Fairbrother, Trevor J. The Bostonians, Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1986.

Falk, Peter (ed.). Who Was Who in American Art. Sound View Press, 1999.

Jarzombek, Nancy Allyn. Mary Bradish Titcomb and her Contemporaries: The Artists of Fenway Studios. Boston: Vose Galleries of Boston, Inc., 1998.

McGlauflin, Alice Coe (ed.). Dictionary of American Artists 19th and 20th Century. NY: American Art Annual vol. 26, 1929. Reprint. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo, 1982.

New Britain Museum of American Art, Catalogue of the Collection. New Britain, CT: The New Britain Museum of American Art, 1975.Troyen, Carol et al.,

American Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1997.

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Polly Thayer is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Painters of Nudes

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