The papers of painter and naturalist, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and the Thayer family date from 1851 to 1999, with the bulk of the material dating from 1881 to 1950, and measure 5.12 linear feet. Thayer's painting career, interest in concealing coloration (camouflage) in nature, and relationships with artists, patrons, family, and friends are documented through correspondence, writings, scattered legal and financial records, printed materials, and a scrapbook. Photographs are of Thayer, his family, studio, and friends, including artists. The collection also contains family papers created by his second wife, Emma Beach Thayer, his son Gerald, his daughters Mary and Gladys, and Gladys' husband David Reasoner, who managed Thayer's estate after his death.
Scope and Content Note:
The papers of painter and naturalist, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and the Thayer family date from 1851 to 1999, with the bulk of the material dating from 1881 to 1950, and measure 5.12 linear feet. Thayer's painting career, interest in concealing coloration in nature, and relationships with artists, patrons, family, and friends are documented through correspondence, writings, scattered legal and financial records, printed materials, and a scrapbook. Photographs are of Thayer, his family, studio, and friends, including artists. The collection also contains family papers created by his second wife, Emma Beach Thayer, his son Gerald, his daughters Mary and Gladys, and Gladys' husband David Reasoner, who managed Thayer's estate after his death.
Scattered Biographical Material includes a brief autobiographical statement and chronology by Abbott Thayer, lists of artworks by Abbott Thayer and Gladys Thayer Reasoner, and biographical information about Thayer's granddaughter, Jean Reasoner Plunket. Two linear feet of family correspondence includes Abott Thayer's correspondence with patrons Charles L. Freer and John Gellatly; with many artists, several of whom were close friends, including Samuel Colman, Thomas Millie Dow, Daniel Chester French, Richard Meryman, Everton Sainsbury, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and E. M. Taber; and former students, such as Ben Foster and Barry Faulkner; and with other friends, many of them prominent members of society, such as Samuel Clemens, Royal Cortissoz, Edward Waldo Emerson, and Stanford White. Also found is Thayer's correspondence with scientists and naturalists discussing his theories on protective coloration in nature. Correspondence of his second wife Emma Beach Thayer, his first wife, Kate Bloede Thayer, his daughter, Gladys Thayer Reasoner, her husband and executor of Thayer's estate, David Reasoner, and other family members are also included in the papers.
Writings and notes by Thayer record his thoughts on concealing coloration, nature, restoration of artwork, and other topics. Writings by others include those by Emma Beach Thayer, daughters Mary and Gladys, and Thayer scholars. The collection also contains correspondence of David Reasoner and other family members, as well as financial and legal documents regarding the estate of Abbott Handerson Thayer and Emma Beach Thayer. Additional financial and legal material includes ledgers, accounts statements, bills, a patent granted to Thayer and Gerome Brush, legal agreements, property deeds, and a map of Thayer's property.
Printed material include books, including one written by Theodore Roosevelt in response to Thayer's book on concealing coloration. Also found are newspaper and magazine clippings, and exhibition announcements and catalogs. Photographs are of Abbott Thayer, his wife Emma; his studio and home in Dublin, New Hampshire; friends, including Rockwell Kent and Ralph Waldo Emerson; and of unidentified people. Artwork includes a few drawings by Thayer, drawings and paintings by his children, and sketchbooks belonging to David Reasoner and Jean Reasoner Plunket. The collection also includes one large scrapbook kept by David Reasoner documenting Abbott Thayer's artwork.
The collection is arranged into 10 series. Glass plate negative is housed separately and closed to researchers.
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1878 - circa 1966 (Box 1; 7 folders)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1867-1987 (Box 1-3; 2.0 linear feet)
Series 3: Writings, 1888-1945 (Box 3; 0.8 linear feet)
Series 4: Estate Papers, 1921-1954 (Box 3-4; 0.5 linear feet)
Series 5: Other Financial Records, 1889-1957 (Box 4; 7 folders)
Series 6: Legal Records, 1891-1927 (Box 4; 4 folders)
Series 7: Printed Material, 1851, 1896-1999 (Box 4-5; 0.4 linear feet)
Series 8: Photographs, circa 1861-1933 (Box 5, MGP 2; 0.2 linear feet)
Series 9: Artwork, 1887 - circa 1940s (Box 5-6, 8; 8 folders)
Series 10: Scrapbook, circa 1910-1920 (Box 7; 0.3 linear feet)
Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) was born in Boston to Dr. William Henry Thayer and Ellen Handerson Thayer. After his birth his family moved to Woodstock, Vermont, and in 1855 settled in Keene, New Hampshire. As a child Thayer developed a love of nature that was encouraged by his close family, which included three sisters, Ellen, Margaret, and Susan. At the age of fifteen he was sent to the Chauncy Hall School in Boston, and while there he met Henry D. Morse, an amateur animal painter. Under Morse's instruction Abbott developed his skill in painting birds and other wildlife and began painting animal portraits on commission. In 1867 he moved to Brooklyn, New York and attended the Brooklyn Academy of Design where he studied under J. B. Whittaker for two years. In 1868 he began showing his work at the National Academy of Design and enrolled there in 1870, studying under Lemuel Wilmarth. He met many emerging artists during this period, including his future first wife, Kate Bloede and his close friend, Daniel Chester French. Thayer became part of progressive art circles, showing his work at the newly formed Society of American Artists, while continuing to develop his skill as an animal and landscape painter.
Thayer and Kate Bloede were married in 1875. They moved to Paris and he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, first under Henri Lehmann, and then with Jean-Léon Gérome. While in Europe he befriended fellow artists Everton Sainsbury, Thomas Millie Dow, George de Forest Brush, and Dwight Tryon. His daughter Mary was born in 1876 and his son William Henry in 1878. The family returned to America in 1879 and settled in his parent's home in Brooklyn, where he changed his focus to portraits. After the tragic deaths of William Henry in 1880 and of their second son, Ralph Waldo, in 1881, the family led a migratory existence living in various parts of New England. In 1881 while living in Nantucket they met Emmeline (Emma) Beach (1850-1924) who would become close friends with Abbott and Kate and would be known as "Addie" to the family. In 1883 their son Gerald was born and in 1886 their daughter Gladys was born. In 1887 Thayer settled his family in Keene, New Hampshire, and began teaching a small group of students. Around this time his wife began suffering from severe depression and went to a sanatorium in 1888. She died in 1891 and that fall Thayer married Emma Beach who had helped to care for him and his children during his wife's illness.
Despite family tragedies, Thayer became a leader in the New York art world during the 1880s and 1890s. He was a successful portraitist and painted allegorical figures of angels, women, and children, which were popular among collectors of this period, including his patrons Charles Lang Freer and John Gellatly. He often used his children as models, especially his eldest daughter, Mary.
In the late 1880s one of Thayer's students, Mary Amory Greene, built a house and studio for the Thayer family on her land in Dublin, New Hampshire, and in 1901 the family settled there permanently. Many of Thayer's artist friends lived nearby, such as Richard Meryman and George de Forest Brush, and the Thayer family frequently entertained prominent visitors such as Edward Waldo Emerson and Samuel Clemens. Abbott Thayer taught painting to his children, and Gerald and Gladys both became artists and art educators. Gladys married David Reasoner, a student of Abbott Thayer who later became his assistant. Other students of Thayer included Rockwell Kent, Ben Foster, Barry Faulkner, and Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
Greatly influenced by transcendentalism and the spirituality of nature, Thayer again began to paint landscapes, especially of nearby Mount Monadnock. He was very interested in the study of protective coloration in the wild, and was an advocate for nature conservation and bird sanctuaries. He published the book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom in 1909 with his son Gerald, but encountered much resistance to his theories. Thayer also wrote about how his camouflage theories could be applied to military warships and uniforms. These theories failed to gain widespread government interest and after suffering from nervous exhaustion, he spent the rest of his life painting landscapes at his home in Dublin, until his death in 1921.
The Archives of American Art holds several collections related to Abbott Handerson Thayer. These include research material on Abbott Handerson Thayer and other artists, 1895-1990, donated by Thomas B. Brumbaugh; the Abbott Handerson Thayer letter and drawings to Caroline Peddle Ball, circa 1890-1893; "The Drawings of Abbott Thayer", by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, circa 1921; and the Nelson and Henry C. White research material, 1898-1978, which includes many letters, photographs, and other material originally belonging to the Thayer family.
The Archives of American Art also holds material lent for microfilming (reels 48 and 3417) including a diary kept by Thayer, a "Family Record" written by William Henry Thayer, correspondence, printed material, photographs, and original artwork by Abbott Handerson Thayer. Lent materials were returned to the lender and are not described in the collection container inventory.
Anne Whiting, a niece of Abbott Handerson Thayer, loaned the Archives of American Art material for microfilming in 1971 and Jean Reasoner Plunket, Thayer's granddaughter, loaned original artwork for microfilming in 1985. The rest of the Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer Family papers were donated in 1999 by Abbott Thayer's great-grandson, John Plunket, who received the papers from his mother Jean Reasoner Plunket. In 2005 Bruce Gimelson donated additional material purchased from the relatives of Emma Beach Thayer.
The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website.
Reel 3417 (art works): Authorization to publish, quote or reproduce requires written permission from Jean Reasoner Plunket. Contact Reference Services for more information.
Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer Family papers, 1851-1999 (bulk 1881-1950). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Glass plate negatives in this collection were digitized in 2019 with funding provided by the Smithsonian Women's Committee.