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Abbott Handerson Thayer

American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849–1921) and businessman-turned-collector Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) were fundamentally different personalities. Freer, a lifelong bachelor, was methodical, self-sufficient, and rich; Thayer, a devoted family man, was mercurial, needy, and often broke. Nevertheless, they enjoyed a relationship based on mutual regard and benefit. More than the other American painters whose works Freer collected, Thayer depended on Freer’s patronage for financial and emotional support.

Freer paid extremely high prices for Thayer’s paintings, believing the artist to be a “rare genius.” His first acquisition, an idealized portrait, was made through the New York art dealer Newman Montross in 1890. After Freer established a personal connection with Thayer, he made subsequent purchases directly from the artist’s studio. “I would rather send every single picture as fast as I do them straight to your home,” Thayer wrote to Freer, “than [to] any other private house in the country.” Thayer’s belief that art should, as he put it, “symbolize an exalted realm” was echoed in Freer’s patronage of those contemporary American painters—James McNeill Whistler, Dwight Tryon, Thomas Dewing, and Thayer—that the collector declared to be “the most refined in spirit, poetical in design and deepest in artistic truth of this century.”

Born in Boston and raised in Keene, New Hampshire, Thayer was deeply rooted in the New England culture that produced the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Like the writers Thoreau and Emerson, he believed in the immanent spirituality of nature, and this attitude informed his approach to painting both landscapes and idealized figures. Like so many aspiring American artists of his generation, Thayer studied in Paris, where, in 1875, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of Henri Lehmann and later Jean-Léon Gérôme. He returned to New York in 1879 and established himself as a successful painter of society portraits.

City life and high society did not agree with Thayer for long. After the death of his first wife in 1891, he increasingly escaped to his studio in Dublin, New Hampshire. There, he and his family lived in a modest house with a view of Mount Monadnock, the mountain that became Thayer’s favorite subject for landscape paintings. In his later years, however, his principal theme was the ideal female figure, which he often depicted with wings. Thayer once confided to Freer that he did not invent his paintings so much as write them down “to the dictation of a higher power.”

Freer ultimately acquired sixteen paintings by Thayer, including an early animal subject, several portraits, six landscapes, and four monumental figural allegories. These works, with their bold execution and lofty symbolism, distinguish them from the subtle surfaces and ambiguous themes of much of the other American art that Freer collected. Even so, Freer regarded his works by Thayer to be harmonious and altogether suitable additions, first to his personal collection and then to the national museum of Asian and American art that he planned during his final years.


Abbott Handerson Thayer, ca. 1918

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