Abbott Handerson Thayer (August 12, 1849 – May 29, 1921) was an American artist, naturalist and teacher. As a painter of portraits, figures, animals and landscapes, he enjoyed a certain prominence during his lifetime, as shown by the fact that his paintings are in the most important U.S. art collections. In the last third of his life, he worked together with his son, Gerald Handerson Thayer, on a major book about protective coloration in nature, titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Disclosures. First published by Macmillan in 1909, then reissued in 1918, it had a widespread impact on the use of military camouflage during World War I. He also influenced American art through his efforts as a teacher, taking on apprentices in his New Hampshire studio.
At age 18, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, to study painting at the Brooklyn Art School and the National Academy of Design. In 1875, having married Kate Bloede, he moved to Paris, where he studied for four years at the École des Beaux-Arts, with Henri Lehmann and Jean-Léon Gérome, and where his closest friend became the American artist George de Forest Brush. Returning to New York, he set up his own portrait studio (which he shared with Daniel Chester French), became active in the Society of American Painters, and began to take in apprentices.
In 1898, Thayer visited St Ives, Cornwall and, carrying an introductory letter from C. Hart Merrian, the Chief of the US Biological Survey in Washington, D.C., applied to the lord of the Manor of St Ives and Treloyhan, Henry Arthur Mornington Wellesley, the 3rd Earl Cowley, for permission to collect specimens of birds from the cliffs at St Ives. In 1901, he and his wife settled permanently in Dublin, New Hampshire, where they had often vacationed and where Thayer had grown up. Soon after, when her father died, Thayer’s wife lapsed into an irreversible depression, which led to her confinement in an asylum, the decline of her health, and eventual death, on May 3, 1891.
Soon after, Thayer married their long-time friend, Emma Beach, whose father owned The New York Sun. He and his second wife spent their remaining years in rural New Hampshire, living a spartan existence and working productively. Always opinionated, Thayer grew more so as he aged, and his family's manner of living reflected his strongly held beliefs. The Thayers typically slept outdoors year-round in order to enjoy the benefits of fresh air, and the three children were never enrolled in school. The younger two, Gerald and Gladys, fully shared their father's enthusiasms, and became painters.Throughout this latter part of his life, among Thayer’s Dublin neighbors was George de Forest Brush, with whom (when they were not quarreling) he collaborated on matters pertaining to camouflage.
In a letter to Thomas Wilmer Dewing (c. 1917, in the collection of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), Thayer reveals that his method was to work on a new painting for only three days. If he worked longer on it, he said, he would either accomplish nothing or would ruin it. So on the fourth day, he would instead take a break, getting as far from the work as possible, but meanwhile instruct each student to make an exact copy of that three-day painting. Then, when he did return to his studio, he would (in his words) "pounce on a copy and give it a three-day shove again". As a result, he would end up with alternate versions of the same painting, in substantially different finished states.
He first became involved in military camouflage in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, when he and his friend Brush proposed the use of protective coloration on American ships, using countershading. While the war did not last long enough for anything to come of this, the two artists did obtain a patent for their idea in 1902, titled “Process of Treating the Outsides of Ships, etc., for Making Them Less Visible” (U.S. Patent No. 715,013), in which their method is described as having been modeled on the coloration of a seagull.
Thayer and Brush’s experiments in camouflage continued into World War I, both collaboratively and separately. Early in that war, for example, Brush developed a transparent airplane, while Thayer continued his interest in disruptive or high-difference camouflage, which was not unlike what British ship camouflage designer Norman Wilkinson would call dazzle camouflage (a term that may have been inspired by Thayer's writings, which referred to disruptive patterns in nature as “razzle dazzle”.)
Gradually, Thayer and Brush increasingly entrusted their camouflage work to the responsibility of their sons. Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909), which had taken seven years to prepare, was credited to Thayer’s son, Gerald. At about the same time, Thayer once again proposed ship camouflage to the U.S. Navy (and was again unsuccessful), this time working not with Brush, but with Brush's son, Gerome (named in honor of his father's teacher).
A few years later, with the start of World War I, Thayer ineptly made proposals to the British War Office, trying to persuade them to adopt a disruptively patterned field service uniform, in place of monochrome khaki. Meanwhile, Thayer and Gerome Brush’s proposal for the use of countershading in ship camouflage was approved for use on American ships, and a handful of Thayer enthusiasts (among them Barry Faulkner and other Thayer students) recruited hundreds of artists to join the American Camouflage Corps.
At age 72, Thayer was disabled by a series of strokes, and died quietly at home on May 29, 1921.