Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Thayer painting with a broom | Let there be a rock!

Abbott H. Thayer, Stevenson Memorial (1903)
Rockwell Kent, It’s Me O Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1955, p. 110, recalling an incident that took place at the studio of his mentor, Abbott Handerson Thayer (“the father of camouflage”), c1903. At the time, Thayer was putting the finishing touches on one of his best-known paintings (as shown above), Stevenson Memorial (commemorating Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson), now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum—

One day, during the progress of his work on the memorial painting to Robert Louis Stevenson, Thayer called me into his studio. “Look at that rock,” he said, indicating the huge rock on which the winged figure sat. “What’s wrong with it?”

With not too much conviction I offered my criticism. “Good!” said Thayer. “Now I’ll go out. You take my brushes and paint the rock the way you think it ought to be. And call me when you’ve finished.” For once a critic had been served exactly right.

So I went to work. And when I had done the best I could, I called Thayer back. Thayer was generous. “Yes,” he said, “I think you’ve helped it.” Suddenly he cried, “Look! We’re both wrong—building it up little by little like that! God said: ‘Let there be a rock!’—and there it was.” And picking up a broom he swept it right and left across the painting. It did the trick. “That’s it,” said Thayer, “that’s it!” And so it stayed.