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. Thayer was born in Boston, Massachusetts. The son of a country doctor, his childhood was spent in rural New Hampshire, near Keene, at the foot of Mount Monadnock. In that rural setting, he became an amateur naturalist (in his own words, he was “bird crazy”), a hunter and a trapper. He also experimented with taxidermy and developed a life-long interest in art by making watercolor paintings of animals.
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. Life became all but unbearable for Thayer and his wife in the early 1880s, when two of their small children died unexpectedly, just one year apart. Emotionally devastated, they gradually left New York.
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. 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 and working productively with the three remaining Thayer children, Mary, Gerald and Gladys. 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. By his own admission, Thayer often suffered from a condition that today is called bipolar disorder. In his letters, he described it as “the Abbott pendulum,” by which his emotions precariously swung back and forth between the two extremes of (in his words) “all-wellity” and “sick disgust.” This condition apparently worsened as the controversy grew about his camouflage findings (most notably when they were denounced by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt). As he aged, he increasingly suffered from panic attacks (which he called “fright-fits”), nervous exhaustion, and suicidal thoughts, so much so that he was no longer allowed to go out in his boat alone on Dublin Pond. At age 72, Thayer was disabled by a series of strokes, and died quietly at home on May 29, 1921.