Wednesday, April 29, 2020

New England camouflage | An art of Yankee origin

New England Historical Society online article
Above Click here for quite a good article on World War I camouflage in New England.

Giraffic Park | Periscope bathing when sub submerged

Ralph Hershberger (1942)
Ralph Hershberger, Funny Business cartoon In The Sacramento Bee, October 19, 1942. The caption reads: “My new camouflage periscope, sir—when we submerge the enemy will think it’s a giraffe taking a bath!”


SEES 14 TRANSPORTS LEAVE NEW YORK in Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico MO), September 5, 1918, p. 3—

The transports are all camouflaged, painted like water and waves and rocks until they look all chopped up and one can’t guess at their enormous size from a distance. They are painted in grays, blues, and blacks and mottled as only the artist hand of the expert camouflager can do.

As Miss Jurgensen’s party neared the transports, they seemed to be empty and without life. Very soon, however, there appeared thousands and thousands of khaki-colored spots, which soon covered the decks in a mass of brown. In an instant these khaki-colored objects became live beings, shouting and waving white and red handkerchiefs. The sightseers cheered until they were hoarse and the soldier boys did not stop for breath. They were “going over,” and were glad of it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Old Man Camoufle who cleverly rearranged the spots

Gary Kelley © 1994
Above The Regionalist, poster illustration for an Iowa arts festival, by Gary Kelley (1994).


Ray K. Moulton, “Camouflage—Its Uses and Abuses,” In the San Francisco Examiner, October 28, 1917—

It is claimed by the French that camouflage was invented a short time ago by Old Man Camoufle, himself a noted savant and patron of the arts.

According to the story, M. Camoule was seated in his garden one afternoon when he noted a spotted cow grazing in an adjacent meadow. He obtained a pot of paint and a brush and by cleverly rearranging the spots, he made the cow look like a goat, or, in other words, like an American ultimate consumer. He tried again and made the cow look like a corn crib, then like a zebra, then like a Ford.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Barber pole periscopes and erratic cubist patriots

Dazzle-painted US ship (c1918). Digital coloring.
BARBER POLE PERISCOPES: Submarine Invisibility Plan Tested at Navy Yard, in New York Tribune, July 17, 1915, p. 2—

A new method of making a submarine periscope invisible is being experimented with in the Brooklyn navy yard by Lieutenant Joseph O. Fisher, of K-6, commanding officer of the 4th Division submarine flotilla of the Atlantic fleet. Lieutenant Fisher’s plan is to paint every color of the spectrum on the periscope in parallel stripes.

Based on the theory that a white ray of light, when refracted, is broken into primary colors, it is presumed that the inverse will be true, and thus when the primary colors are refracted the result will be a white ray, which would be invisible.


in Railway and Marine News (1917), p. 29—

In 1902 a patent was granted two Americans, Gerome Brush and Abbott H. Thayer, who started out with the idea of reserving the coloring of the light and shaded portion of a vessel to decrease her visibility. Naval officers who have given much thought to this idea are Lieutenant Commander Joseph O. Fisher and Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting. Both of them started their studies in connection with the operation of submarines, but more recently, Lieutenant Whiting has continued his experiments in the field of aviation. Commander Fisher probably is responsible for the variegated color schemes which have led inhabitants of coastal cities to believe that a large proportion of recent navy recruits was composed of patriotic but irresponsible cubists.

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.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A monstrous feeling of slipping off the world's edge

C.R.W. Nevinson (c1919)
Above Christopher R.W. Nevinson, Banking at Four Thousand Feet, as reproduced in Christian Brinton, War paintings & drawings by British artists, exhibited under the auspices of the Ministry of information, London, 1919.


Eric Adeney, "My First Flight: A Futurist Picture" in To-day magazine (July 1918), pp. 177-182—

I want to paint a Futurist Picture.

A wild whirl of blues and grays and mauve, out of which leap at you something expressive of soaring massive strength and—a focal point for the pale blues. the greys and the mauve—a lighthouse, squat, ridiculous, as seen from above, though at the same time lying full length, on its side, at right angles to the earth, to the horizon that is madly standing on end.

Or, would it be “Vorticist”?

That word sounds the more appropriate.

Certainly, the delicate, detailed, “photographic” method is utterly inadequate. Anyone, granted a certain power over technical details, can paint you a train rushing through a landscape. The effect is cunningly contrived by little dabs of blue smoke and flying dust sweeping backward from the wheels! But, set the painter in an express train, and then let him honestly try to portray the view from the carriage-window. What will he put down in the foreground?

Who does not know the maddening moment when you try to read the name of the station as you are hurled through it. You fix your eyes, hold yourself very tense and steady, secretly a little proud of your unexpected power of self-concentration; and then a smudge, of whitish-green and brown: and you philosophically recover from your intense irritation by saying, “Oh well, try the next station!”

Now, the great majority of us sane everyday creatures have been brought up from infancy to regard this dizzy flight of the foreground as perfectly natural. We never dream of anyone finding any difficulty in accepting this preposterous behavior. I remember a child in the lift of the Hampstead Underground saying in startled awe, “Coo, look, the side’s going down.” An impatient feathered female said, “N-a-o-w, we’re going up, silly. The child’s round eyes showed that he knew it was an incomprehensible lie, to be accepted with a sigh. So, from our youth up, we accept as eminently natural the utter impossibility of whirling trees and posts and railway stations. Yet, were I to draw this Incredible everyday occurrence, everybody would laugh, and say, “Don’t be silly!” Hitherto, I too have laughed: tolerantly, of course, with a sort of benevolent broad-mindedness that loftily allowed that some of your Futurists were honestly trying to convey Something, though, of course, they were quite mad!

And then, one soft mauve afternoon, I was given a flight in an airplane. I expected a new and interesting sensation, but as to the exact nature of the thrill I was to experience I had had no hint. No one seems to have taken note of it, as far as I know. Yet all the thousands of aviators must have experienced it, the chaotic whirl, that happens suddenly. That is one secret of its thrill—the suddenness of it. This is what happened :

My military duties at present make of me one of the guardians of the coast of England; and the path to my patrol leads around a great aerodrome that has settled, with a tremendous air of permanency, on a certain wild and desolate spot, or rather, has sprung up its might like the warriors from the Teeth of the Dragon. One day, a small, very keen-eyed, brisk little man, with the MC ribbon, asked me if I would like a “joy-ride.”

Wonderful creature, Man—“joy-riding” in the clouds!

So we donned. leather coats and romantic-looking fur-lined leather helmets, goggles and gauntlets: and strolled across to a machine. Any old one lying about, apparently! This one had only lately been in; wasn’t allotted to anyone in particular yet. They called It the Camouflage Bus, the body being painted in sprawling browns and grays. I climbed on to .the lower plane, and stepped into a little cubby-hole, with a comfortably enough shaped seat, and a place to put one’s feet in front, amid various weird wires disappearing into the framework. A broad belt tied me in. And so I was—in—irrevocably so.

A mechanic commenced to turn the propeller in front. Behind me I heard the pilot making awesome remarks, such as:

"Oh, the Bowden has gone West." (The Bowden! Bowden-brake? No brake?!)

"The throttle won't work, I see." (?!!)

"She wants oil." (Nobody fetched her any!)

“This stay is broken." (Oh dear !!!!)

Then—“Contact”; and “Contact," replies the mechanic which mystic word seems to signify that “she” is ready to move. The engine purred, roared, screamed: little things looking like spark plugs, sitting on top of the bonnet on either side, just in front of me, quivered and spat blue. Mechanics withdrew the blocks of wood from in front of the wheels.

Then—we were off.

Two or three comfortable bumps on the rubber tires, and then smoothness: and the earth, the grass, the banks, the river, the houses, trees, everything, subsided, and in less time than it takes to write this, I seemed an incredible height up from the ground. I did not have that giddy sensation from which I usually suffer when looking down from high tower or windows. One is sitting on such strong virile solidity—swaying every now and then certainly—that there is a feeling of perfect security; not of being poised on nothing over space, but of sitting firmly on a good strong cloud that won't let one drop. I felt serenely comfortable, like being in the bow of a ship that was magnificently leaping up smooth slopes of invisible waves, without any of the buffeting and shiver-my-timbering that goes on in the sea. It was like an ideal switchback, without the extra little bumps or overhanging rocks in which scenic railways indulge with the intention of being entertaining. Those are the things in switchbacks that make one uncomfortable. A straightforward graceful up-and-down I am sure anybody could enjoy!

Then—we turned a comer, as it were: technically speaking, I believe, we "banked."

I confess at first I shut my eyes; then I kept one-half open; and so had awesome glimpses of the earth and the sea toppling over, standing on end. The horizon was vertical! As we swayed, the earth and sea and sky swooped away; at first, everything rushed upwards, like the Pack of Cards in Alice in Wonderland; and then it all poured madly downwards, like the last wild rush of soap suds when the bath is nearly empty. There was a jagged, glittering splash of sunlight in the mauve afternoon sky that was performing the queerest acrobatic tricks, balancing on its tail one moment, peeping at me from underneath the opposite side the next, and in less than no time careering about like an aurora borealis! I saw the lighthouse, squat and ridiculous, directly beneath me; then, the next second, it lay on its side, and, if we had not righted ourselves in another second it would cheerfully have stood on its head. When we thus keeled over sideways there was a monstrous feeling of slipping off the edge of the world, uncanny and gloriously terrifying.

And in the midst of it all I had a clear, definite knowledge that I could never satisfactorily draw the business in the ordinary "photographic" manner. Post-Impressionism, or Futurism, or Vorticism—or whatever “ism” it may be—is undoubtedly the only way to record this mad behavior of the earth and sea and sky and of this strong beast—bird I should say—though that little word sounds too tiny to apply to this rampant creature. Ever as we soared the wonderful thing on whose back I was riding lifted its great blue nozzle defiantly at space, and I could see it climbing, leaping, bounding, up and up, from one invisible plane to another. Being in the front seat, and so not able to see the pilot at work, I had the feeling that this great winged creature was going wherever it wanted, of its own volition. And I repeat, the only way to set it down as a drawing is by one of these mad-seeming efforts at portraying chaotic and simultaneous movement.

This experience has flung me suddenly into new ideas—new to me, that is.

Certain things stood out vividly, all the time—the great heaving nozzle, swaying and plunging, insistent in its strength and blueness; the yellowish semicircular talc screen just in front of me; the brightness of the ribbed planes; the clean brownness of certain bits of woodwork; and, away below, the lighthouse, squat one moment, sideways the next, a clear-cut feature around which swirled the beach, the dull sea, the dull sky, the excitable slit of sunlight, the merging odd pieces of grass, a river, and certain huts and pathways, a kaleidoscope of dull gray-blueness.

But chiefly I was aware of the nozzle and the lighthouse. Ever since that first flight—I have now had two or three more, and no longer need to shut my eyes, nor even to hold on—I have had this matter buzzing in my mind. On odd bits of paper I have tried to draw it. Of course, I could fairly easily paint a mild photographic little watercolor showing the lighthouse, the fore-shortened perspective cleverly "caught," the aerodrome, and the rest of it, and, artistically placed on the lefthand side, a carefully studied replica of the front of an airplane as seen from the observer's seat, and so on, so that people can say “it is just like it." But, pleasing as such a drawing might be to the eye, it would not begin to express how it really feels to be careering about, sideways, 1000 feet or so up in the air.

But will the “mad" method convey this more surely? My friends will laugh, of course.

They have laughed already at the halting efforts on the odd bits of paper.

Nevertheless I want to paint my Futurist Picture…I cannot help it…

To camouflage the starkness of man-dealt horrors

WWI camouflaged troop ship loading (c1918)
Bertram Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Stein and Day, 1963, pp. 95-96—

Cubist disputes were at the flood in Paris in 1914. The gabble was rising higher and higher, when it was stilled by the cannon’s roar. All at once, M. Bourgeois recognized that M. Artiste might be useful after all: to draw recruiting posters; to use his power of accenting and distorting and concentrating reality to make war's horrors (as the enemy waged it, of course) more vivid and, if possible, more horrible; to use brush and paint and optics to make solid forms like trucks and cannon merge with their background; to camouflage the starkness and irrevocability of unnatural man-dealt death by adorning it with laurel leaves; at the very least, he might find a lowest common denominator with all able-bodied males of proper age and exchange brush for gun, thereby becoming, at last, a “useful” member of society. Art, in one form or another, enlisted or was drafted for the duration, and reintegrated into a disintegrating society.

Diego Rivera (1910)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Harrison S. Morris | His memories of Abbott H. Thayer

Harrison S. Morris
Above Photograph of Harrison S. Morris (1856-1948), a writer, editor, and arts administrator. From 1893-1905, he was the managing director of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, the nation’s oldest art school. In 1896, he married Anna Wharton, whose father was Joseph Wharton, a prominent industrialist who co-founded Bethlehem Steel, as well as Swarthmore College. Morris was the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, and the art editor of the Ladies Home Journal. A prolific writer, he was the author of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was in frequent contact with artistic and literary figures of his time, including (as described below) Abbott Handerson Thayer and George de Forest Brush.


Harrison S. Morris, Confessions in Art. New York: Sears Publishing, 1930, pp. 142-144—

It was he [Abbott H. Thayer] and George de Forest Brush who, I believe, first thought of camouflage for ships at sea. They had pondered much and experimented much over the scientific problems of light and color, even outside the uses of pigment. They were among those to whom art brings ripened intellect, like Morse and Fulton, inventors who revolutionized the world's methods of contact.

So when we were in the war with Spain, Brush and Thayer disinterestedly went to Washington and offered their services and discoveries to the Secretary of the Navy. Of course, he was skeptical, as official life always is of change. He wanted to know, you know, and all that sort of thing. But while he was deliberating, and telling perhaps why the scheme was no good, one of the painters stuck in the ground a slender stick which he held in his hand, painted after their theory of protective coloration. Then Brush alluded and pointed in the course of conversation to the stick before them. To the Secretary of the Navy, there was no stick in sight. He went on speaking his conventional thought. But quietly and as if accidentally one of the painters turned the slender stick around in its place, so that the sun touched it another way, and, would you believe it, there was the stick which the Secretary could not see.

I rather think nothing came of the offer in the day of the Spanish War. But we know vividly enough what came of it later, and what ships and lives were saved by the wisdom of the two incomparable artists who thus could coordinate their art to the uses of life.

Thayer holding one of his duck decoys upsidedown

And another time, so Brush tells me, Thayer was invited to lecture on his theories of color before a Royal Institution of Science in London. He had before him on the platform a table on which was visible a decoy duck of wood such as sportsmen use in gunning. In his address, he alluded much to these ducks before him, and as well before the audience. At last, the patience of one of the English pundits could stand this no longer. He got up in some irritation at the offense to his intellect of speaking of ducks when there was only one duck in view. Would the learned gentleman be pleased to explain why he referred to ducks, thus plural, when there was only one duck in sight? He sat down well satisfied with exposing an American impostor who didn't know how to use the English language.

Thayer then gave a quick twist to a wooden duck, made invisible by his coloring, and the second bird was exposed in all its solidity. So was the English skeptic.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Enlisting our amateur poets for wartime camouflage

SS Perfection (c1918)
Above Dazzle camouflage applied to the SS Perfection, Emergency Fleet Corporation. Digital coloring.


WANT OUR POETS, UNCLE? in The Des Moines News (Des Moines IA), August 22, 1917, p. 4—

Uncle Sam is getting up some “camouflage” units of amateur artists. To “camouflage” you fool the enemy aviators by painting a cannon so that it looks like a log or a log to look like a cannon; or you make a munitions train look like a roadway; and so on—the more you make things look like what they ain’t, the more of a “camouflager” you are.

The American amateur artist is sure the boy for this job, and we’re hot for “camouflage” to the hilt.

We’d like to ask Uncle Sam is he has any war space for amateur poets. If he has, we know where he can get a fair-sized cohort.

Putting our amateur poets beside our amateur landscapists in Europe mightn’t do much for the universal brotherhood vision, but it would create a strong desire for peace!


Anon, “Impossible” [cartoon caption], c1913—

Four times the politician posed,
The cubist artist in despair,
Then said, “The task I must resign.
I find I cannot paint you square.”

U-boat destroyed by deck guns on American tanker

HMS Balmoral Castle (1918)
Above HMS Balmoral Castle [not the ship described below], a camouflaged British troopship as photographed in New York harbor in November 1918. Digital coloring.


During World War I, it was common to anticipate that Allied ships were in danger of being torpedoed by German U-boats. But in March 1918, an American tanker, the USS Paulsboro, spotted an enemy submarine on the surface. By setting its deck guns at an extreme elevation, the tanker was able to find the range of the submarine and to begin shelling it from a distance. The U-boat fired 50 rounds, while the tanker fired 88 3-inch shells, and succeeded in sinking the U-boat.

The incident was reported on March 30, 1918, in Town Talk, in the San Francisco Daily Times, p. 9, which included the following excerpt—

The [tanker USS] Paulsboro attracted a lot of attention in the harbor because of her camouflage, which is said to be unique in ship decoration and quite helpful in bewildering the marksmanship of the submarine gunners. Her sides are painted sea color, with wave effects starting from the waterline and ending about fifteen feet up. The superstructure, masts, and funnel are bediamonded, spangled, triangled and otherwise geometrically treated in red, green, blue, black and yellow. Some of the paint was scraped off where the shrapnel struck, and in many places the pelting of the metal hail has improved the camouflage. A part of a rail and funnel were liberally punctured, but no damage was done near or below the waterline.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Camouflage artists turn Velie automobile into a fig tree

WWI military vehicle (not a Velie automobile)
ARTIST TURNS AUTO INTO A FIG TREE: Camouflage to save American lives, in The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1917—

When the American boys get on the firing line in France they will be able, with the assistance of artists, to show the French and British soldiers that they have been studying the war game from many angles. For instance, they have lately taken up the subject of camouflage, and artists employed by Edwin H. Flagg Scenic Company have become so expert at disguising various kinds of equipment, including automobiles, that at a hundred yards or so it is impossible to distinguish a machine from a fig tree. [A] Velie [brand automobile was recently] “transformed into a fig tree,” and the work was done so well that at a short distance, if placed in a fig orchard, it could not be told from the trees. “Camouflage is the simplest sort of work, and stories of its use on the battlefronts show that it has already been the means of saving thousands of human lives,” said Arthur Hurtt, a local artist, yesterday. “The experiments conducted in Los Angeles have proved beyond a doubt that almost any object may be so completely hidden behind a coat of paint that it cannot be discerned from a distance of 100 or 200 yards, and an enemy might pass much closer than that without noticing it. It was shown in a most graphic way how an officers’ touring car, for instance, could be ‘erased’ by this process when the Velie was driven to a point on Long Beach Boulevard and in less than one hour so completely ‘camouflaged’ that it could not easily be discerned at a short distance, and was completely invisible at a distance equalling the width of ‘no man’s land.’”

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Randolph Bourne, Abbott Thayer, and pandemic flu

Randolph Bourne
At the end of World War I, there was a major flu pandemic that began in January 1918 and continued to December 1920. About 500 million people were infected worldwide, about a quarter of the planet's population then. Of those, the death toll is uncertain but it may have been as many as 100 million.

In my lifetime, I have either known personally or have heard the stories about children who were orphaned when their parents died in that pandemic. Two of those children, for example, were the writer Mary McCarthy (author of The Group and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood) and her brother Kevin McCarthy, who became a Hollywood actor.

Another prominent person who died in that pandemic was a radical American writer and intellectual named Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). Bourne was well-known for his provocative essays about societal reform. But, in advance of that, he himself was socially conspicuous because of his physical deformity, part of which occurred at birth. During his delivery, forceps were used improperly and the umbilical cord was wrapped around his left ear, leaving that ear jutting out and that side of his profile distorted. Tragically, four years later, he was struck by tuberculosis of the spine, which stunted his growth, leaving him hunchbacked and dwarfish for life.

Despite such disabilities, Bourne went on to study at Columbia University, where he earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and where he was greatly influenced by philosopher John Dewey. He then spent time in Europe but returned in 1914 just as World War I began. In the remaining few years of his life, he was a contributing writer to various progressive magazines, including The New Republic and The Seven Arts.

At some point, perhaps in the summer of 1915, he asked a friend if she knew of “any attractive place in New England where one might go with the expectation of meeting somebody interesting?” She suggested Dublin NH, and arranged for a cabin in which he could stay. Once there, Bourne reported that he’d found “people of quick roving intelligence who carry their learning lightly,” and even better, those “who use their learning as fuel to warm them into sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men.” Among those he befriended were the families of Abbott Handerson Thayer (the “father of camouflage,” George de Forest Brush, and Raphael Pumpelly (whose daughters were the models for some of Thayer’s finest paintings).

Dublin NH (1906)

He also met Amy Lowell, who often spent summers in Dublin. According to Van Wyck Brooks (in Fenollosa and His Circle, With Other Essays in Biography), when Bourne dined at Lowell’s home, she “walked up to him as one of the oldest of friends and they had a truly grand gossip. She was surprisingly fair-minded and a lover of all sorts of queer and little people whom she touched off inimitably…” But she later had a change of mind, and, after a subsequent meeting, she told a friend that Bourne was a “weakling” whose physical deformity was evident in his “twisted mentality and tortured [writing] style.” “Everything he writes,” she said, “shows he is a cripple.”

Bourne was especially drawn to Abbott Thayer, whom he described as “a winsome and Emersonian old person.” About the artist’s family, he described how they live “in the woods, in a romantic warren of studios and big low rough rooms, with great fireplaces, and windows that frame delicious pictures of pine trees and mountain and sunset. [The Thayer family, he wrote] are all such charming, simple wistful, unworldly people, with whom you can sit silently before the fire and know you understand them.”

As reported by Brooks, during the summer that Bourne lived in Dublin, Thayer was (inevitably) preoccupied with Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, the book that he and his son Gerald H. Thayer had first produced in 1909 (it would later be reissued in 1919) “on protective coloration, which was so useful in the war, and he showed Randolph and [his friend] Fergus his color diagrams and demonstrations and told a great many stories.” The US had not yet entered the war, but Thayer was determined to share his wartime proposals on camouflage with the British.

Music was central to the Thayers’ daily life, and on one summer evening, Abbott brought out from storage an antique German piano (probably the one that had been shipped in the "piano box" that we described in an earlier posting) and combining that with a violin, the family and their guests enjoyed singing lieder songs by Schubert for an hour. As Bourne himself later described it:

Mr. Thayer’s appreciation was almost embarrassingly ecstatic, and he proferred sketches and dinners and thanks if we would come two or three times a week and do it again. I liked his simple emotional ways and his telling us we had “watered his soul.” He took us down to the road with the quaintest of lanterns and spoke constantly of the music.

Still, Thayer’s focus on camouflage, and his efforts to convince the world of the rightness of his theories was always at the forefront. As Bourne wrote to one of his friends—

Mr. Thayer’s head was so full of piebald warships and the conversion of college presidents to protective coloration that he couldn’t any longer let his emotional nature be stirred by our Schubert and Bach.

For whatever reason, the Thayer friendship did not last. While Bourne considered the option of buying a house in Dublin, and becoming a permanent resident there, Thayer stopped short of suggesting even another summer visit. Bourne’s visits, recalled Van Wyck Brooks, “were too exciting for Abbott Thayer, and, as Randolph said, ‘I talk too much.’”

Nevertheless, some distant contact still remained, and—

…when Mr. Thayer’s daughter Gladys came to New York, Rudolph offered to find a studio for her. She had just marched in a suffrage parade in Boston, led by what she called "a hag-like lady in regal dress of brocade, riding on a black steed just in front of us…Seeing the prim red-nosed antis with their unbearably smug and pampered demeanor I felt once and for all which was the great and human side and the lines of progress.”

In December 1918, Bourne fell victim to the flu epidemic and died that month. He was only thirty-two. He was buried in Bloomfield NJ (his birthplace) on—

a dreary day with a cold rain falling. The Abbott Thayers came to the funeral with others of his older friends; and Norman Thomas,* at the time a clergyman, conducted the service. Lewis Mumford wrote, a little later, "Randolph Bourne was precious to us because of what he was rather than because of what he had actually written."


* One of the most memorable events of my life took place on May 17, 1967, when (as a student) I attended a talk by American Socialist Norman Thomas in the Auditorium at the University of Northern Iowa (then the State College of Iowa). What a courageous man and a powerful speaker. He was 83 when he spoke, and would die at the close of the following year.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Theatrical special effects | Thayer's disappearing man

Abbott H. Thayer holding one of his duck decoys (upsidedown)
Until recently, I had not heard of Percy MacKaye (1875-1956), an American poet and playwright. That should come as no surprise, since (according to Michael J Mendelsohn in his essay by on “Percy Mackaye’s Dramatic Theories”), he “is rarely mentioned today.” But in “the pre-Freudian, pre-O’Neill days of American drama, he was a major figure.”

A Harvard graduate, MacKaye traveled and lived in Europe from 1897 to 1900, then returned to the US to teach at a private school in New York. In 1904, he moved to Cornish NH (ten miles from Plainfield), where he was allied with the Cornish Art Colony, which included such prominent artists as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Maxfield Parrish, Daniel Chester French, Paul Manship, George de Forest Brush, and Barry Faulkner.

Sixty-five miles southeast of Cornish is Dublin NH, at the foot of Mount Monadnock. At the time, there was considerable contact between the artists in Cornish and Dublin, in part because the latter was the location of the disheveled home and studio of artist-naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer (the so-called “father of camouflage”). Faulkner was Thayer’s cousin,  Brush was his closest friend, and some of the artists mentioned above were his long-time associates.

Only lately have I learned that Thayer and Percy MacKaye were also acquainted, possibly well-acquainted, and, in 1906, they made an attempt to collaborate on the “special effects” for the staging of Edward H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe’s 1907 production of MacKaye’s play about Joan of Arc, titled Jeanne d’Arc. The playscript was dedicated to Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

In the script, Jeanne d’Arc reveals that she has been visited by St Michael the Archangel. In a couple of scenes, “the glorified form of St Michael” appears as an apparition, then disappears. At a certain point, the ghostly form of Charles the Great (aka Charlemagne) appears within a stained glass surface, then speaks with the voice of St Michael. Obviously, anyone producing the play would need to decide how to handle these ethereal appearances (and vanishing acts) of Jeanne's visions of St Michael.

As early as the mid-1890s, Abbott Thayer had been researching, writing about, and devising demonstrations of a natural form of camouflage called countershading (essentially inverse shading). He claimed that it accounted for the prevalence of “white undersides” in the coloration of animals.

Thayer's disappearing duck (as recreated by Fuertes)

Using wooden duck decoys, as seen in the photographs above (or even raw sweet potatoes), he could make solid forms all but vanish in a natural ground surrounding. (In these two photographs, made by Thayer's student, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a white sheet of paper has been placed behind the duck decoys to make the counter-shaded one visible, on the right.) Scientific audiences were astonished by his outdoor demonstrations of this. He published articles about countershading in scientific journals, and it led to his being invited to European universities to demonstrate and to install exhibitions of the same phenomenon.

Thayer was inept at managing money. But when his discovery of countershading (sometimes known as Thayer’s law) was received so laudably, he began to imagine practical ways by which he and his family could profit. One of his options had to do with theatrical stage effects. Instead of vanishing duck decoys, could countershading be applied to an actor’s skin-toned leotards, and then, by a simple switch of the lights, might the actor disappear?

We know that Thayer actually carried this out because two photographs of the effect have survived (as reproduced below). They are before-and-after photographs of a male artist’s model (a Boston man named Dutton) wearing counter-shaded tights, in the setting of a lighted box. In one, the light is coming from the bottom (contrary to natural lighting), in which case the figure is easily seen. In the other photograph, the light is coming from the top, and the model all but disappears.

Thayer's vanishing actor in counter-shaded leotards

In 1906, as Percy MacKaye was preparing for the premiere of Jeanne d’Arc, he may have reached out to Thayer—more likely Thayer appealed to him—about the possibility of using on-stage countershading as a way to bring about the appearance and disappearance of St Michael. We know this in part because MacKaye described it in Percy MacKaye: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography of His Works (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1922). Here is the passage—

Midwinter, in the little town hall of Dublin NH: a man-model against a dusky curtain: Abbott Thayer, the artist-inventor, intent, excited, testing (in 1906!) his new “camouflage” principles to create a stained-glass vision of Charlemagne for the Sothern-Marlowe production of my play Jeanne d’Arc.

But did their collaborative efforts succeed? The answer is no: In the end, their project came to naught. There are letters from Thayer to MacKaye in the Archives of American Art that record his frantic if genuine efforts to locate appropriate lanterns and to photograph the model in tights. On March 26, 1906, he sent photographs to MacKaye (perhaps the same two reproduced here), saying: “When Dutton got his suit on again, and took his place, the effect was almost as perfect as ever, quite enough without a single retouch (but the lantern’s the thing!)” A full month later, on April 26, he assured MacKaye that he has made “progress, but only that,” and is awaiting a shipment of new and better lanterns, which, he hopefully asserts, “will make a true total invisibility.”

There is apparently more to the story, but the details remain rather murky. In the files of the Archives of American Art, there is another letter to MacKaye (dated May 25), written by Emma Thayer, on behalf of Abbott, her husband. She reveals that Thayer is overwhelmed, and instead—

he has got that gifted young man [his student] Rockwell Kent (whom Abbott wanted before and could not) to do the thing. Abbott has had him up here, and Abbott says he will do it superbly. But to make sure Abbott is having him do the only complicated thing, the St Michael, first and if he has any difficulty he is to telegraph Abbott, and Abbott will go down.

Rockwell Kent is swiftness itself—and having more endurance can do the thing quicker than Abbott, and is masterly and precise in the way he does everything.

Despite such good intentions, Thayer and Kent were not able to provide a final prototype for the Sothern and Marlowe production. “Unable to get [it] together in time,” according to Thayer’s biographer, Nelson C. White, the collaborative experiment concluded “in complete failure.”

Soon after, Thayer came to realize the futility of making a fortune by inventing practical things. As he wrote to his patron, Charles L. Freer (as quoted by White)—

My failure to make my cursed invention suit itself to Sothern’s immediate needs was the eye-opener I need. I had gone on thinking the Thayer family must have the thousands I was to scoop so easily so as to set me free to work. My eyes opened for good and all and although the thing got into such perfected shape that it seems both to me and my patent lawyer destined for success, nothing will divert another thought from my own work [as an artist], which envelops me like the arms of a beloved again…

…P.P.S. The theatre invention is all ready for someone to take up, patent applied for and covered already in four foreign lands. If the right man looms up within a year or two he shall have it. Otherwise, it can go to hell. I am safe cured! 


The above was posted only three days ago, but I've just found two updates, including one that's especially surprising: (1) From a news article about a talk that Gerald H. Thayer gave in 1921 in Lowell MA (Lowell Sun, January 20) it appears that he showed the lantern slides of the model who vanished in his leotards. In the article, the space in which the man is posed is described as a "piano box" (a box for shipping pianos), set up in the Dublin NH town hall. (2) Today, I found out that the autobiography of psychologist Michael Wertheimer, the son of Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, has been published in Europe. I couldn't resist buying a digital copy, as expensive as it was. When I paged through it, I was completely aghast to discover that Michael's first wife's grandfather (her mother's father) was—you guessed it—Percy MacKaye. See photo below—I do love these hidden links.

Percy MacKaye

Friday, April 3, 2020

When I was a boy I saw Cokes and ice cream cones

Drawings for Game Blind (US Patent 2,992,503), 1961
Byron P. Hovey, One Jump Ahead: Memories of a Yankee. New York: Exposition Press, 1982—

When four years old I moved with my parents into a large house owned by A.B. Taylor and I celebrated the change of houses and general surroundings by climbing into a two-wheeled ox cart and immediately falling from the stern to the ground, striking a stone and cutting my forehead very severely. I was said then and has been repeated by those who knew of the accident that this fall affected my brain—I yet carry a prominent scar as a result of it, but by parting my hair exactly in the middle I have managed to camouflage it.


Something new is always exciting, and it is fun to look back and recall when some things started. When I was a boy I saw Cokes begin. At first, many people were opposed to Cokes, believing them to be intoxicating. But they were not. At a World’s Fair I saw ice cream cones for the first time. During the First World War, the word “camouflage” came into use. This word was a wonder to me. Radios came into use while I was young, and I recall the first time a presidential campaign was put on the air. When I was in about the fifth grade airplanes were new. In school some of us children looked at Popular Mechanics magazine one day and decided that airplanes would never be developed, as they were not practical. How wrong we were!

I recall the first time I saw a French-style telephone. I tried to use one but put the wrong end of the receiver to my ear. I can remember when electric lights replaced gaslights. I even remember the old phonographs that played cylinder records. Helicopters, modern elevators, diesel locomotives, electric doorbells—these were firsts with me also. My, how things have changed over the years—always something new and better…


Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future. UK: Penguin, 1964—

The most important and urgent problems of the technology of today are…the reparation of the evils and damages wrought by the technology of yesterday.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Video on making a replica of a WWI camouflaged ship

dazzle ship model video
Above A screengrab from a wonderful new short video by Michael Alm on how to make a wooden replica of a dazzle-painted ship from World War I. Go here to view the video itself. It's worth it!

Gertrude Stein as camouflaged in self-effacing Alice

Above Roy R. Behrens, front cover of dust jacket for COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook, and Le Corbusier (Dysart IA: Bobolink Books, 2005).


Sidonie Smith (in a discussion of Stein's autobiography, titled The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) in Subjectivity, identity, and the body: women's autobiographical practices in the twentieth century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 76-77—

…Stein ventriloquizes "Alice"…

By speaking through the voice of Alice B. Toklas, Stein pursues an art of camouflage. The relationship of cubist painting and camouflage is remarked by "Alice" as she recalls the cannon in camouflage on the Boulevard Raspail in Paris. And later, she notes the significance of camouflage in World War I as she recalls touring the front after the Armistice: "The idea was the same but as after all it was different nationalities that did it the difference was inevitable. The color schemes were different, the designs were different, the way fo placing them was different, it made plain the whole theory of art and its inevitability." Using "Alice" as a piece of camouflage, Stein can make herself the egotistical center of the text and the influential center of twentieth-century modernism. She can, as Timothy Dow Adams argues, publicize herself through a "tall tale" in which "she creates herself as a legendary figure, given to outrageous bragging and superhuman abilities." That is both the art and artifice of her text.

The camouflaged Stein displaces her "monumental egotism" into the self-effacing voice of "Alice"…

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Concealing bad tattoos | A cluster of forget-me-nots

Cover illustration for Puck (1917). Library of Congress.
Above Satirical portrait of a tattooed Theodore Roosevelt, from the cover of Puck magazine, April 10, 1917. Caption: THE NEW TATTOOED MAN. He Makes An Exhibition of Himself.


Charles W. Purcell, Jr., Getting Under Your Skin in The Baltimore Sun, December 8, 1946, p. 15—

“Before and during the war [WW2] all my work was putting [tattoos] on, now it’s taking off,” says Charles J. Gelzer. To the servicemen who climb the narrow stairs to the second floor, one-room parlor of his East Baltimore Street establishment he is known as Tattoo Charlie.

Seventy-five percent of m work is covering up names, initials, and work that returning servicemen don’t want their wives or girlfriends to see,” he says. “I also do a lot of retouching and going over work that is undesirable, poor jobs done by beginners.”

Ironically, when Charlie camouflages an old girl friend’s names, he uses a cluster of forget-me-nots.

“During the war,” he says, “a lot of guys were turned down by recruiting stations until they had obscene or immoral tattoos covered.

“All I had to so with the usual nude designs was to put on a grass skirt and a lei, then the fellow was ready for service.”…

“I never had a complaint about my work until a few weeks ago,” he says, “A woman who had been in before, came in and demanded that I remove or do over her husband’s name inscribed on her arm. They had just been divorced.”



[St Louis Tattoo artist Bert Grimm’s] most original customer, a girl, changed the bromidic “Death Before Dishonor” to “Death Before Dishwashing.” His most chagrined patron was a man who brought in a Chinese line [of characters] which he said meant “good luck, farewell.” A few days after the words had been written on him a Chinese laundryman interpreted the inscription as “four pairs of socks, two suits of underwear, five handkerchiefs.”

Embedded Figures