Oral history interview with Polly Thayer, 1995 May 12-1996 February 1
Thayer, Polly, 1904-2006
Brown, Robert F.
Littlefield, William Horace
Van Ness, Beatrice Whitney
Hale, Philip Leslie
Hawthorne, Charles Webster
Place of publication, production, or execution:
Transcript: 89 pages.
Originally recorded on 3 sound cassettes. Reformated in 2010 as 6 digital wav files. Duration is 3 hr., 44 min.
Access Note / Rights:
Transcript available on the Archives of American Art website.
An interview of Polly Thayer (Starr) conducted 1995 May 12-1996 February 1, by Robert F. Brown, for the Archives of American Art.
Thayer talks about her childhood in an upper class Boston family, thriving on drawing in charcoal from casts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, under tutelage of Beatrice Van Ness; her social debut, 1921-1922; a trip in the summer of 1922 to the Orient with her mother and brother where she was caught in the Tokyo earthquake; Philip Hale's method of teaching drawing at the Museum School in Boston, 1923-1924, and, later, privately; Eugene Speicher's urging her to free herself from Hale's teaching; the difficulty of making the transition to painting; and winning of the Hallgarten Prize of National Academy of Design, 1929.
Studying with Charles W. Hawthorne in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the summer of 1923-1924, which countered the rigidity of her training at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston School; travels in Spain and Morocco in early 1929, at the time her large painting of a nude, "Circles," won the Hallgarten Prize; the importance to her of a letter in 1929 from the critic, Royal Cortissoz, urging her to not fall into the trap of the Boston School and become formulaic in her work; her first one-person show at Doll and Richards, Boston, which resulted in 18 portrait commissions; her ease with which she did self-portraits early in her career, but not so later; and her difficulty in holding the attention of portrait sitters.
Studying with Harry Wickey at the Art Students League, who taught her by boldly re-working her drawings for "plastic" values, which Starr quickly achieved; sketching medical operations and back-stage at theatres, which gave her the dramatic subject matter she sought in the early 1930s; her portraits; getting married in 1933 and the affect on her work; and her work at the Painter's Workshop in Boston with Gardner Cox and William Littlefield. She recalls May Sarton whose portrait she painted in 1936, Charles Hopkinson, and Hans Hofmann.
The distractions from painting brought about by marriage, children, acting, an active social life and much travel; her increased involvement in social concerns through her conversion to Quakerism; the simplification of her paintings beginning in the late 1930s and her steady execution of portrait commissions, which took less time; her exhibitions in Boston and New York through the 1940s and the rarity of them after that; being a board member of the Institute of Modern Art, Boston, and its co-founder, Nathaniel Saltonstall; her approach to painting which amounts to seeking the invisible in the visual world; and the onset of glaucoma which has ended her painting career.
Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Polly Thayer, 1995 May 12-1996 February 1. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Transcript available online.
Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America's Treasures Program of the National Park Service.
Polly E. Thayer (1904-2006) was a painter from Boston, Massachusetts.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 750 9th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001