Monday, January 21, 2013

Camouflage Artist | David O. Reasoner

USS Banago (1918) in dazzle camouflage (digital coloring)

David O(rville) Reasoner was born in 1882 in Upland IN. He attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where he graduated in 1909. In subsequent years, he studied painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

During World War I, Reasoner was employed by the US Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation, as a civilian navy camouflage artist, in the course of which he applied camouflage designs to US merchant ships. Records in the Archives of American Art indicate that his assignment officially ended on December 15, 1918.

Around 1920, Reasoner and two other Boston artists (Henry O’Connor (1891-1975) and Frederick Rhodes Sisson (1893-1962)) became apprentices and assistants to Abbott Handerson Thayer at the well-known painter’s home and studio in Dublin NH. Thayer’s publications about the “concealing coloration of animals” had influenced the development of Allied wartime camouflage during WWI. In various sources, Reasoner, O’Connor and Sisson have been described (along with other apprentices) as Thayer’s “copyists” (they made precise duplicates of his unfinished paintings, from which he then went on to make different finished versions). Also cited as an assistant in his later years was a painter named Grace Dredge (1895-?), originally from Des Moines IA.

Thayer’s health (both physical and psychological) was declining rapidly in the winter of 1920-1921, and according to Gladys Thayer (called Galla), the artist’s daughter, it was primarily David Reasoner who attended to Thayer’s needs and “toward the end did little besides take care of him.”

As described in Ross Anderson’s biography of the artist—

In the spring of 1921, while resting in bed Thayer asked an assistant [Reasoner] to bring him one of his unfinished canvases and his palette and brushes. As he began to work, his hand suddenly stiffened, evidence of a slight stroke. He suffered two more within the next three weeks, and died from a third on May 29, 1921.

Years later, Reasoner provided his own account of Thayer’s last weeks in a 1948 news article in The Kingston [New York] Daily Freeman, in which the following text appears:

Even on his [Abbott Thayer’s] deathbed, painting was uppermost on his mind. The family physician had told [David] Reasoner ‘It won’t be long. He might last the day out.’ Thayer had been working on a picture promised for shipment to a New York gallery. The elderly man asked Dave to bring up the picture from the studio. It was set up where he could see it from his bed. He then required Dave to darken a small area near the bottom. ‘No, a little higher—now a little to the left. No, no, come and help me over to it.’ Any movement would likely be his last, but Reasoner knew he would try to do it alone if he didn’t help so he practically carried Thayer to the spot that needed darkening. It is said that half the time, Thayer worked paint with his thumb instead of a brush, and the thumb had a beat as regular as a metronome after fifty years of use.

Curiously, there is a public record that Grace Dredge and Lyman Reasoner (David Reasoner’s brother) were married on May 28, 1921, in Keene, New Hampshire (a dozen miles from Dublin), one day before Thayer’s death. She took on the married name of Grace Dredge Reasoner (and later, Grace Reasoner Clark). Ten days later, on June 6, 1921 (according to an Indiana University alumni note), David Reasoner and Gladys Thayer were also married.

Following Thayer’s death (based on correspondence in the Thayer Family Papers in the AAA), it appears that Thayer’s son, Gerald Handerson Thayer (called Gra) was initially the executor of Thayer’s estate. Somewhat later, due to an unclear set of circumstances, the role of executor was shifted to David Reasoner.

Around 1925, the Reasoners moved to Woodstock, New York. They became the parents of four children, Allen (who died during World War II), Jean (portrait painter Jean Reasoner Plunket), Peggy and Richard.  According to online information, plans for that facility—

began in 1928 with the formation of Woodstock Property, Inc. (WPI), founded by David O. Reasoner, an Indiana-born artist with a superb golf game. After selling stock in WPI Reasoner negotiated the purchase of 250 acres of farmland…WPI then leased the land to Woodstock Country Club, Inc. at a nominal fee. Reasoner presided over both WPI and the Country Club…

At about the same time, the Woodstock Playhouse was founded, under David Reasoner’s management, a position that he continued to hold for at least the next few years. A solo exhibition of his wife’s paintings was held at the Woodstock Country Club Tavern in August 1932.

Beginning in the spring of 1937, for about three years, the Reasoner family was all but nomadic, traveling across the country by station wagon, often camping out, and living intermittently at various locations in California (San Diego, Point Loma, Santa Barbara, Montecito, and Santa Monica). In June of 1940, when David Reasoner’s mother became ill, they moved back to his hometown, Upland IN, about 75 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

The US entered WWII at the end of 1941. In early January, David Reasoner (leaving his wife to care for his ailing mother in Indiana) moved to Washington DC­­, accompanied by his daughter Jean, in the hope that, given his experience in the previous war, he might once again find work as a ship camoufleur. In late January 1942, he met with artists Charles Bittinger (1879-1970), head of the U.S. Navy Research Department, and Everett Warner (1877-1963), both of whom had been involved in WWI camouflage. According to a Reasoner letter (in February 1942), he had been told by Bittinger that it was “just a question of time until there will be all-out marine camouflage,” and that “when this happens, I  seem to be in line for the top job.” But, according to a later letter (June 1942), he was eventually assigned not to camouflage but to “managerial duties”: “Instead of camouflaging ships I find myself an impresario, secretary, and telephone operator.”
News article from Kingston Daily Freeman, New York (1948)

In the same 1948 news article (cited earlier) in The Kingston [New York] Daily Freeman, there is a story that contends that, when David Reasoner moved to Washington DC, he gave to Walter Seaton, a Woodstock friend and artist, "what he thought were a lot of old canvases," including some from Thayer's studio. One of those canvases, as Seaton discovered while cleaning them for future reuse, was a previously unknown Thayer self-portrait, one of only four he made. Included in the news article is a low quality newsprint photograph (reproduced here) of Seaton (standing on the left) and other local artists with the newly discovered painting.

A few years earlier, Gladys Thayer Reasoner had rejoined her husband in Washington, DC, where she died in August 1945. David Reasoner’s mother, Louanna, remained in Indiana and died in 1948.  

In a letter dated October 4, 1949, David Reasoner (on behalf of the Thayer Estate) donated to the Smithsonian Institution 96 sketches, photographs, watercolor studies, demonstration models, and paintings “made by my father-in-law [Abbott Thayer] is his study of protective coloration in the animal kingdom.”


Abbott Handerson Thayer andThayer Family Papers at the website of the Archives of American Art (Smithsonian Institution), Research Collections (includes 10,074 online image and document scans, with numerous letters and other materials pertaining to David Reasoner).

“Alumni Notes” (David Reasoner entry), in Indiana University Alumni Quarterly. Vol 8 No 4, October 1921, p. 528.

Ross Anderson, Abbott Handerson Thayer. Exhibition catalog. Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum, 1982.

“Artist Discovers Rare Self-Portrait by Thayer,” in The Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston, New York). December 14, 1948, pp. 1 and 17.

Roy R. Behrens, Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art,Architecture and Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2009.

“Gladys Reasoner to Hold Exhibition,” in The Kingston Daily Freeman, July 25, 1932, p. 6. 

Nelson C. White, Abbott H. Thayer: Painter and Naturalist. Hartford: Connecticut Printers, 1951.