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July 16, 2007

Angels and Impasto

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Interesting late-19th century American paintings are easy to find in Washington, DC, as I noted in in this post about Thomas Wilmer Dewing.

In addition to a room nearly filled with Dewings, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art has several important paintings by Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921). No, that's not a misspelling: the second letter of his middle name is "a," not "e."

Biographic information on Thayer can be found here, here and here. Unfortunately, the sources do not agree on all the details. For example, the Wikipedia article (at the time I'm drafting this post) says that Thayer moved from New York City to New Hampshire in 1901, an event followed by the death of his first wife. Other sources say she died in 1891, but agree that the move happened in 1901.

In any case, the deaths of two children and the illness and death of his first wife influenced the mercurial Thayer to add angel wings to female figures in what became his best-known works.

In addition to allegorical paintings, he painted floral still lifes as well as landscapes of New Hampshire and the Cornwall coast.

In the years before the Great War, Thayer became interested in camouflage and wrote a book (published in 1909) that became influential in that field.

His art training was classical. He studied at the Brooklyn Art School and the national Academy of Design. After his 1875 marriage, he went to Paris for four years where he studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts.


Angel - 1887
Thayer's wife was seriously ill when he painted their 12 year old daughter Mary with angel wings. Thayer liked to paint rapidly, preferring to spend no more than three days at a time on a painting for fear of overworking it -- though he might choose to return to it later. This painting is roughly done, aside from central facial details. If I remember correctly, either it or the Stevenson Memorial painting (see below) in the National Gallery exhibits almost slapdash paint application in the mouth area when viewed in person.

Virgin Enthroned - 1891
This was painted not long before his wife's death. Daughter Mary is at the center with her sister Gladys "on her right" and her brother Gerald "on her left" according to information from the National Gallery. (For some reason upper middle class families sometimes dressed little boys as girls in the late 19th century. But I wonder of the reverse of the directions might be more correct.) If you look closely at Mary's chin area you can see some of the odd treatment mentioned above.

Young Woman - study, no date
I'm including this to further illustrate Thayer's portraiture skills.

The Stevenson Memorial - 1903
This is a tribute to author Robert Louis Stevenson. The model was a Thayer household servant, not a family member. It too can be seen at the National Gallery.

Monadnock in Winter - 1904
Thayer did a good deal of landscape painting following his move to New Hampshire.

Yes, the subject matter tends to be sentimental. But the rough-hewn painting style and coloration detoxes most or all of the potential sticky-sweetness, think I. Imagine what a Keene-Kinkade cyborg ("the portrait painter of light") might have done with the same subjects.



posted by Donald at July 16, 2007


Yes, I can see what Kinkade would do with it, but the fact that Kinkade trades in sentimentality does not deny the geunine sentiment of these pictures.

(Although I almost feel sympathy for Kinkade after his assault on Winnie-the-Poo. Reminds me of the scene in Red Dwarf where Lister watches Winnie being shot "somethins we are not meant to see" he comments...)

There is of course a strong pre-Raphaelite feel to the pictures, and pre-Raphaelites were only as good as they were genuine in their sentiments. I like the dark colors, a hint of Rembrandt or Caravaggio?

Posted by: Adriana on July 16, 2007 9:01 PM

To each his own, I guess, but...yuck.

Posted by: BP on July 16, 2007 9:18 PM

I really enjoy these postings on interesting painters I've never heard of. Thayer and Dewing may be as familiar to others as the Heidelberg school to Australians, but to me they are entirely new. And I must say I like many of these fin-de-siecle types in art and music who provide a misty interlude between Romanticism and Modernity. Delius is one such. 'Sad fun' is how I'd characterise much of their work.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on July 17, 2007 8:27 AM

Thayer's idealized portraits in the museum of American art in Washington, D.C. are (like most good paintings) better seen in person than via reproduction; nevertheless, bless you for propagating the images. And Dewing's as well.

I am nostalgic for a time before I was born, the 1890s until the debacle of 1914. Society as a whole may not have been better then -- actually, as in all historic comparisons, some things were better, some worse -- but the art and music were absolutely better. I say that fully confident of being contradicted.

Thayer's blending of classicism and romanticism is one example of how Western painting reached its third zenith (after the High Renaissance and the late 18th century) in that era. Not fashionable today? I rest my case.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 17, 2007 8:39 PM

I'm astonished at the accusation of sentimentality regarding Thayer's paintings. Look closely at the faces and they are clearly portraits of real people, and not altogether comfortable with posing for such pictures. The tension between the religious iconography and the reality of the individuals portrayed is quite clearly intended, and seems to me to be getting at many of the same themes as the work of Lucien Freud (especially when Mr. Freud references classic works as he as done more commonly in recent years). Thayer seems to be suggesting that we have angelic aspects to our natures that we somehow have to deal with, no matter how discomforting those aspects make us. I think it is a quite original and extremely personal point of view on the relationship of the human and divine, something that hardly seems inappropriate as a subject of serious art.

Thanks, Donald, for putting some Thayer up on display.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 19, 2007 10:52 PM

There is something in Thayer's pictures, an awareness which is alien to as: the acceptance of the death of one's children.

Children died young then. No family escaped the awful expeirence of having to bury their children, and more than once. It is only now that we fully expect all of our children to grow up to maturity and survive us.

Which is why Thayer's pictures are seem alien to us, because he lets out a deep feeling which we no longer share.

Posted by: Adriana on July 20, 2007 9:03 AM

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