Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Gladys Thayer | Daughter of Abbott Handerson Thayer

Abbott H. Thayer, Gladys (c1915).
Above Abbott Handerson Thayer, Gladys (c1915). Oil on canvas. Original is in the collection of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.


Gladys Thayer (also known as Gladys Thayer Reasoner) was born in Woodstock CT on July 17, 1886. Her parents were Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) a well-known American painter and naturalist, and Catherine (Kate) Bloede Thayer (1846-1891), who was descended from a family of accomplished German writers, scientists and political reformers. There were five children in the Thayer family, two of whom, the second and third, died while still in infancy. Those who lived to be adults were Mary (1876-?), Gerald (1883-1935) and Gladys.

Shortly after Gladys’ birth, a friend of the family reported that “[Abbott] Thayer is boiling over with happiness of a healthy girl baby and all goes well in the Thayer household.” At the same time, Kate’s father’s health began to fail and he died in May 1888. Kate Thayer lapsed into a severe depression (referred to then as melancholia), and was hospitalized for extended treatment. Over time, her condition worsened and she died in 1891. A few months later, Thayer married a family friend, Emmeline Buckingham Beach, who had assisted the family for years, and whom the children called “Aunt Addie.”

Gladys Thayer grew up in what has been described as an “eccentric” or unconventional household. She and her siblings were kept out of school, for fear of being exposed to contagious illnesses (not unreasonable at the time). Their “home-schooled” education was a rich combination of daily activities, centered on classical reading, writing, art, music, overseas travel, nature studies and enlivened dinner discussions. It was supplemented by modeling for their father, and in other ways assisting him as he took on commissions from wealthy art patrons.

A central component, shared by everyone in the family, was an insatiable interest in animals (some of which were taken in as exotic house pets). Abbott Thayer “loved animals and each family dog seemed to take a scarcely less important place than the humans,” Gladys recalled of her father. “We had countless happy times with him, and wood walks and twilight fires stand out among the happiest.”

In his autobiography, book publisher George Palmer Putnam II describes his youthful friendships with Gerald Handerson Thayer (an artist and naturalist) and Rockwell Kent (a Thayer student). He visited Dublin briefly in his late teens, and he recalls that Gladys (known as Galla) was “a fragrant girl with a special beauty all her own.” He fell in love with her and they briefly dreamed of marriage. But “the idyll did not materialize,” because his parents sent him overseas, “and by the time I returned, Galla sensibly thought better of it.” He later married the aviator Amelia Earhart, who was also on occasion a visitor to Dublin.

As did all the Thayer children, Gladys studied drawing and painting with her father, and also no doubt profited from the presence of students and apprentices, among them Kent, Richard Merryman, Barry Faulkner, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and the sons of William James, named William Jr. (Billy) and Alexander (Alec). Gladys contributed to the illustrations that were published in Abbott and Gerald’s early, influential book on animal camouflage, as did Kent, Merryman and Aunt Addie. It was titled Concealing coloration in the animal kingdom: an exposition of the laws of disguise through color and pattern (1909). Gerald is deservingly listed as the book’s author, but in truth his father was in charge, with assistance from others as needed.

As Gladys reached adulthood, her father encouraged her to exhibit her drawings, pastels and paintings. In February 1906, her work was featured with that of her father at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. Her most accomplished single work may be a portrait of her father that dates from 1907 or shortly thereafter. He wrote notes to the gallery owner and art dealers, encouraging them to show her work, which typically consisted of still-lifes and landscapes. Occasionally her work was shown at Knoedler Gallery, Vose Galleries of Boston, and Grand Central Galleries. The reviews were politely supportive.

As Abbott Thayer aged, his mental and physical health declined. He admitted to being susceptible to what today is known as bipolar disorder or manic-depressive episodes. He described this as the “the Abbott pendulum,” in which his moods would fluctuate between “all-wellity” at one extreme and “sick disgust” at the other. Near the end of his life, he was assisted in his studio by three apprentices, Henry O’Connor (1891-1975) and Frederick Rhodes Sisson (1893-1962) from Boston, and David O. Reasoner, an Indiana-born artist who had worked for the US Shipping Board as a civilian camouflage artist during WWI.

In his final months, Abbott Thayer was progressively disabled by strokes. According to Gladys, it was primarily Reasoner who attended to Thayer’s needs and “toward the end did little besides take care of him.” The frequency of the strokes increased and he died on May 29, 1921.

Throughout the span of this ordeal, Gladys Thayer and David Reasoner had become a couple, and, about ten days after Abbott’s death, they were married on June 6, 1921. In subsequent years, they became the parents of four children, Allen (who would die at age twenty in a wartime training accident), Jean (portrait painter Jean Reasoner Plunket), Peggy and Richard. In 1924, the family moved to Woodstock, New York, an artists’ colony in the Catskill Mountains. For the next decade, David Reasoner was associated with the Woodstock Country Club, while he also worked as manager of the Woodstock Playhouse.

Throughout these years, Gladys continued to paint and to exhibit her work on occasion, but rarely at prominent galleries. In the fall of 1932, thirty-one of her artworks were exhibited for two weeks at the Woodstock Country Club Tavern, and a selection of her flower paintings were shown at the Grand Central Art Gallery in New York in January 1935.

Beginning in the spring of 1937, for about three years, the Reasoner family was almost nomadic. They traveled 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 1940, after David Reasoner’s father died, the family moved back to his hometown, Upland, Indiana, to care for his ailing mother.

The U.S. entered WWII at the end of 1941. U.S. ship camouflage experts knew that Gladys’ father and her brother Gerald had informally advised the Allies on camouflage during WW I. Since David Reasoner had also been a ship camoufleur during that war, he thought he might again find work in the same capacity. In January 1942, he moved to Washington DC, accompanied by his daughter Jean, while his wife remained with her mother-in-law in Indiana. Unfortunately, as Jean recalls, “technology had made most of his camouflage skills obsolete,” and he never secured that position.

The time frame is unclear, but at some point during WWII, Gladys Thayer Reasoner joined her husband in Washington, DC, where she died of cancer on August 25,1945.


Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer family papers, 1851-1999, bulk 1881-1950. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“Artist discovers rare self-portrait by Thayer” (1948) in The Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston NY). December 14, pp. 1 and 17.
Behrens, Roy R. (1988) “The theories of Abbott H. Thayer: father of camouflage” Leonardo (MIT Press). Vol 21 No 3, pp. 291-296.
Behrens, Roy R. (2002) False colors: Art, design and modern camouflage. Dysart IA: Bobolink Books.
Bowdoin, W.G. (1921) “Oil Paintings by Gladys Thayer at Macbeth Gallery” in The (NY) Evening World, April 11, p. 10.
Cortissoz, Royal (1919) “Originality in art, natural and artificial: Painting by Twachtman; Miss Thayer’s portraits” in New York Tribune, January 12, p. 7.

“Gladys Reasoner to hold exhibition” (1932) in The Kingston Daily Freeman, July 25, p. 6.
Plunket, Jean Reasoner (1998) Faces that won’t sit still: An update. Washington DC: Self-published.
Putnam, G.P. (1942) Wide margins: A publisher’s autobiography. NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Thayer, Gerald H. (1909) Concealing coloration in the animal kingdom: An exposition of the laws of disguise through color and pattern. NY: Macmillan.
White, Nelson C. (1951) Abbott H. Thayer: Painter and naturalist. Hartford CT: Connecticut Printers.

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