Abbot Thayer and the Invention of Camouflage

Dublin, NH has been a center for intellectual and artistic endeavor for almost 150 years. This is one in a series of articles exploring this heritage.

Abbot Thayer (1849-1921) was an American painter, generally credited for being the guiding force in the Dublin Arts Colony. His work is primarily remembered today for the angelic woman and Monadnock landscapes he painted.  An eccentric man, Thayer was prone to mood swings (he likely was bi-polar), and he sometimes destroyed his canvases or stowed them under a kitchen sink. But his eccentricity also led him to varied interests in the natural world, informed by his training in the arts.

"A Virgin" by Abbott Thayer - Portrait of his children.

Born in Keene NH, he spent a number of years in France as was typical of young artists of his generation. In the late 1880s, he began spending summers in Dublin ultimately moving full-time in 1891 to an unheated summer cottage on the south side of Dublin Lake.  At the same time, he lost his first wife (after having lost two young children), probably to a combination of depression and tuberculosis. This experience led him to take extreme measures in protecting his children. He believed that nature and the benefits of fresh air were essential to their health. As a result, his ramshackle home was never winterized; in fact it was left open to the elements in all weather and wildlife was allowed to wander through freely. His children were not sent to school to avoid communicable disease and the family slept in lean-tos out of doors even in the fierce Dublin winter.

Abbot Handerson Thayer, Peacock in the Woods, 1907. From Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.

His love of the natural world and his desire to understand how animals protected themselves led him to a series of discoveries in how animal coloration worked.  He advanced his ideas in a book co-written with his son (Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom - 1909), of how animal patterns protected various species by disrupting their visibility in the natural environment.  His  theories relied on three central concepts: countershading (the idea that the most animals are darker on top and lighter on the bottom so that natural light equalizes the color); figure disruption (the idea that varied patterns disrupt the silhouette of an animal’s shape); and, background picturing (the idea that patterns that mimic natural habitat allow an animal to blend into the background).

At this time, scientists and naturalists (who themselves were trying to establish credibility over the then prevalent “spirited amateur”) were still struggling with many of the ideas of natural selection. Debate often focused on whether animal coloration was solely correlated with protection, or had an impact on sexual reproduction and species identification.  Thayer’s ideas were controversial in some quarters not only for his single-mindedness (he insisted that coloration’s only purpose was protection), but because he was neither a scientist nor a recognized naturalist.  Thayer’s response was typical of his inability to hear other voices,” the entire matter has been in the hands of the wrong custodians… it properly belongs to the realm of pictoral art, and can only be interpreted by painters. For it deals wholly in optical illusion, and this is the very gist of the artist’s life. He is born with a sense of it; and from his cradle to his grave, his eyes, wherever they turn, are unceasingly at work on it, - and his pictures live by it.” 

For the next decade a battle emerged over Thayer’s theories. His harshest critic (or at least the most visible) was Theodore Roosevelt, ironically an equally spirited amateur. While Roosevelt conceded that Thayer’s ideas held great merit, he objected that “it is wholly different when the theory is pushed to fantastic extremes”.  He particularly objected to some of Thayer’s observations on African Zebra.  As a big game hunter Roosevelt found Thayer’s arguments with regard to African animals specious. Moreover, as an ex-President, Roosevelt was able to rally a number of scientist to his views.  Thayer fought back and felt misinterpreted and a running intellectual feud developed between the two men. All of this played out against a larger background where scientists were increasingly asserting their professionalism and the necessity for credentials in scientific advancement. Increasingly, Thayer and his ideas became a sideshow.

Then the world erupted into the most lethal war it its existence. The destruction of life sickened Thayer and he turned his ideas on animal camouflage to the military arena. Early in the war, the French military found Thayer’s book and used it to institute a program for disguising facilities and equipment. In 1915, Thayer went to England, intent on forcing his views on the Royal army.  Making presentations to the war office, Thayer thought his views not accepted. Instead it appears that they generally were but that the basic conservative nature of military organizations, coupled with the inability to quickly alter the equipment of an army engaged in the field, led only to incremental advances and acceptance by the British army. To a great degree however, Thayer was his own worst enemy in actually getting people to fully implement his insights.  He returned to the US unduly dispirited about the contribution he had actually made.

Abbott Handerson Thayer’s “Diorama for Military Camouflage With Text Panels,” circa 1914-15. CreditAbbott Handerson Thayer, Collection of Richard Meryman

Returning home, he focused on methods for camouflaging ships and submarines.  He is credited with the invention of the “dazzle” pattern which became common on military and merchant ships during the war.  A United States Camouflage unit was established and commanded by a son (a former student of Thayer’s) of fellow NH artist Saint-Gaudens.  Despite these successes, in true Thayer single-minded fashion, he became convinced that the only color a warship should be painted was white - “White, as a rule, as a rule is too bright to be anything in the scene but sky, therefore whenever we see it where sky is to be expected we incline to count it sky.”  He lobbied the Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pressing this view.  When counterarguments were made, he created increasingly complex and impractical alterations to deal with changing lighting conditions.   

The two decades of defending his ideas had taken a toll. Brilliant, combative and  gifted, Thayer was worn down by the battles and began to decline. He died in Dublin in 1921.

Many of his theories and insights have been vindicated over time.  Today, he is often described as the “Father of Camouflage”.  At the same time, Roosevelt’s view that Thayer pushed his ideas to “fantastic extremes” is equally true.  

Source: "Not Theories but Revelations":The Art and Science of Abbott Henderson Thayer, Kevin Murphy, Williams College Museum of Art

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