Once a major figure in American art and the era of civic art now known as the American Renaissance, Abbott Thayer (1849-1921) has slipped into an unfortunate obscurity, known only to a handful of artists and museum visitors. Thayer was a singular individual whose unique style and way of presenting his subjects made him stand apart from his contemporaries. His art, prints and posters are overwhelmingly of women, but rather than pose his models in the fashionable clothing of the demi-monde or place them in neo-classical settings like his contemporaries, Thayer idealized his women, often giving them wings which made them timeless monuments to femininity.
Instead of chafing at the demands of family life as many artists do, Thayer reveled in the closeness of his family and idealized women and children in a way that few painters have done before or since. It is this spiritual quality that elevated his art, prints and posters and gave his art a special dignity. With the current interest in angels, Thayer’s work is now popular on greeting cards, even though few of those sending them are familiar with the artist who painted them.
Abbott Thayer admired the transcendent quality of Renaissance art and he sought to achieve the same timeless spirituality in his own paintings of women and children. His art, prints and posters are intensely personal in conception and a close reading of his art and biography reveals that painting, especially the domestic subjects that he favored, was a cathartic experience for him. Charles Freer, the Detroit industrialist and largest collector of Thayer’s work, actually wrote to the artist because he feared the paintings he was buying were almost too personal for the artist to sell. The artist explained to Freer that his collecting would just allow him to start painting another one. The respected art critic Royal Cortissoz, one of Thayer’s friends, wrote of him with the same respect he accorded George Inness, Winslow Homer and John La Farge, the great figures of 19th-century American art. He credits Thayer with giving “the period its noblest monument in painting, the sublime Ascension, which belongs to the church of that name in New York.”