WILLIAMSTOWN — Approaching science with an air of mysticism, New England painter Abbott Handerson Thayer found himself in the center of heated scientific debate at the turn of the century. It was the last gasp of the influence of amateur naturalists in the path of science, one that would lead to huge leaps in the field of camouflage.
Best known for his "angel" paintings, which featured cherubic, contemplative girls with angel wings, New Hampshire-based, Boston-born Thayer is the subject of a new exhibition opening Friday at Williams College Museum of Art that seeks to align those more ethereal works with lesser-known work as a naturalist.
The show's title, "Not Theories But Revelations," refers to Thayer's own framing of his scientific investigation, which treated ideas formed from observation as being on a higher plane than mere science.
Curator Kevin M. Murphy was well familiar with Thayer's "angel" paintings, but his real fascination began when he encountered Thayer's 1904 oil painting "Monadnock In Winter." Murphy was struck by what he calls Thayer's "attack" on a canvas and how unprecedented it was against other painters of his era.
"He lays over the top of a lot of his works," Murphy said. "They almost look like abstract expressionist. They're gestural kind of strokes. They sit on the surface and you have to really think about what they're representing or what they're not representing."
That painting revealed to Murphy Thayer's passion for the natural world, which during the course of his life he showed appreciation for not only in his art, but in essays, photography and field work. Thayer published his ideas in scientific journals, accentuated by his own art. He felt his unique status as an artist solved problems that scientists could not.
"He illustrates them often with either these paintings that are almost cubist in their solution of form, and at first he is very well received and some parts of his theories people still refer to," said Murphy.
Thayer's fascination came from his observations of animal world camouflage. His earliest theories, which were well-received, focused on what he called "countershading." In basic terms, this focused on the question of why animals were typically dark on top and lighter on bottom. "Countershading" refers to the flattening of the animal caused by this circumstance, an aspect of camouflage.
Thayer eventually published the book "Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom" in collaboration with his son Gerald in 1909, which was criticized by scientists and thoroughly mocked by Theodore Roosevelt, another amateur naturalist.
The debate with Roosevelt had much to do with Thayer's method of making paintings to illustrate his theories of camouflage. Thayer was an advocate of natural selection and his ideas even had the endorsement of Alfred Wallace, who co-published with Darwin. Thayer believed that a natural setting could predict what an animal would look like and he used his paintings to illustrate his idea. This resulted in paintings of flamingos against pink night skies and blue jays against shadows on snow.
"He was arguing that these were as truthful as anything else, because of his particular skills," Murphy said, "but you could see why scientists and Roosevelt were saying, you're just making that up. As an artist, you can match colors if you want to, but that's not a way to make an argument."
Thayer was so focused on his own ideas about animal coloration that he dismissed others, a sign of his arrogance that rankled scientists. Still, there was enough in his work that he attempted to officially pursue military camouflage. By World War I, his ideas were being put into use by the U.S. military, including on boats.
"He actually writes a lot about the Titanic disaster and publishes op-eds and editorials about why the Titanic sank and what to do about it in the future," said Murphy. "That leads into his idea that you should paint ships white, pure white, because they would then look like the sky. That's exactly why they couldn't see the ice at night."
Murphy has since come to link the qualities of Thayer's angel paintings with his more science-related work, with his color blending techniques, most notably obliterative coloration, in which patterns help figures blend into the environment, in evidence. This leant an expressionist quality to his work and also boosted thematic concerns in regard to the natural world.
"The angels were talismans of protection," said Murphy. "The coloration was linked to his interest in conservation."
The WCMA exhibit benefits from Murphy's unprecedented access to previously unseen materials still owned by the Thayer family and former students of Thayer who had rescued his materials from his studio.
"There's a lot of the research material, these amazing three-dimensional camouflage dioramas where he was cutting out little paper dolls, painting them in camouflage and setting them to try to explain his theory," Murphy said. "There are a number of stencils that he was using to try and explain his theories to people."
From the Meryman family — Richard Meryman was a student of Thayer — the show received over 300 glass plate negatives that hadn't been seen since Thayer himself boxed them up.
With so many materials to work with, Murphy says he has been able to juxtapose objects — some research, some prototype, some finished paintings — in order to bring out the full breadth of Thayer's impact and legacy as he approached color and light in various forms and for various purposes.
"It's the most significant Thayer exhibition that's happened in almost 20 years," said Murphy.
IN THE GALLERIES
What: "Not Theories But Revelations — The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer
Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Ste. 2, Williamstown
When: Friday through Aug. 21
Hours: Through May — 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (except Wednesday and Thursday); 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; closed Wednesday. June-August — 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (except Thursday); 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday
Information: (413) 597-2429; wcma.williams.edu