Feel Art Again: "A Virgin"

Andréa Fernandes
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Abbott Handerson Thayer is an American artist known for his paintings of ethereal angels as well as his camouflage techniques. "A Virgin," one of his paintings of his children, is part of the collection at the Freer Gallery of Art, one of the Smithsonian museums. Today we'll delve into this haunting painting.

1. Abbott Thayer was married to Kate Bloede, whose family introduced him to the romantic world of the arts. When her father died, she became severely depressed and died a short time after, in 1891. Her death hit Thayer hard and significantly impacted his work, as his paintings took on a less cheery tone. "A Virgin" was begun shortly after her death.

2. The central figure is Thayer's oldest daughter, Mary. He originally modeled her after Flora, the Greek goddess of flowers, but decided to paint her as a Greek "Victory" figure. His depiction of Mary was inspired by the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a Hellenistic sculpture, and the Sherman Monument, a winged female figure leading the Union commander into battle, which was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a friend of Thayer.

3. Beginning at a young age, Thayer was an amateur naturalist. After he moved to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, he worked to protect the trees on Monadnock and founded the Thayer Fund, which paid for the protection of bird sanctuaries. He described himself as "bird crazy."

4. Both his interest in nature as well as his interest in color prompted his study of protective coloration in nature. With his son, Gerald (pictured in "A Virgin"), he wrote Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909). The book became the basis for American camouflage techniques during World War I. Thayer became known as the "father of camouflage." In 1902, he even obtained a patent, with his friend and fellow artist George de Forest Brush, for their idea to use protective coloration on American ships. Patent No. 715,013 is titled "Process of Treating the Outsides of Ships, etc., for Making Them Less Visible."

5. Thayer suffered from what he called "the Abbott pendulum," bipolar disorder. He referred to the two extremes as "all-wellity" and "sick disgust." The symptoms worsened during controversy over his camouflage findings; Theodore Roosevelt was one of the critics who denounced Thayer's camouflage theories.

6. By the time he died in 1921, Abbott Thayer had lived in the colony on Mount Monadnock for 20 years. After his death, his son Gerald scattered Thayer's ashes on Mount Monadnock.

Large versions of "A Virgin" are available through the Freer Gallery and Wikipedia.

"˜Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.