Freer Gallery of Art

Freer Gallery Courtyard after Restoration, photo by John Tsantes

Smithsonian Institution / Washington, DC



Winged Figures by Abbot Thayer

June 5, 1999 through February 19, 2000


Charles Lang Freer (1854­1919) acquired sixteen works by Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849­1921), including three monumental winged figures, all portraits of Thayer's youngest daughter, Gladys Thayer (1886­1945). These three paintings are on view in the exhibition Winged Figures, which opened on June 5, 1999 and continues through February 19, 2000.

Abbot Thayer's preoccupation with wings arose partly from his "lifelong passion for birds." The three monumental winged figures in this exhibition, all purchased by Charles Freer for the collection he bequeathed to the United States in 1919, are portraits of the artist's youngest child, Gladys Thayer. An artist herself, she understood her father's desire to elevate American art above the photographic and the commonplace, "to endow the individual depicted with a quality beyond the casual." Adding wings to a figure, she explained, made the model appear to be "a creature of all time."


The Model

Fifteen years after Abbot Thayer painted his first "angel" picture -- a portrait of his eldest child, Mary --he determined that Gladys (1886-1945), his younger daughter, would be his next subject. She was to him "a sacred. sight," he said, perhaps because she was growing to resemble her late mother. In the years that followed, Thayer portrayed Gladys several times wearing a stern expression and the powerful wings of a guardian angel.

Thayer was initially reluctant to ask Gladys to pose, not only because he found her dark eyes and complexion difficult to paint, but also because he hated to confine her while he worked.In some of the resulting paintings, such as Winged Figure Seated Upon a Rock, Gladys's impatience is apparent. Although she never received formal training in art, Gladys Thayer learned to paint in her father's studio. During the very years that she posed for these heroic pictures, she was trying to establish her own professional reputation. Her work was so good, Thayer thought, that when she produced her first painting of Mount Monadnock, in 1906, he was afraid to let his patron Charles Freer see it beside his own renditions of the theme. Her portraits, landscapes and flower paintings were critically acclaimed, especially by the writer Royal Cortissoz, who recognized that Gladys Thayer had adopted her father's "impulse toward beauty" without falling into a mindless imitation of his style. Her works also reflected Abbot Thayer's attitude toward art, as embodied in his paintings of winged figures. "For surely the mission of art," Gladys wrote in 1916, "is to give us Hope, to show us the highest possibilities."


A Winged Figure

A Winged Figure, by Abbott Handerson Thayer (American, 1849­1921), 1904­11, Oil and canvas; gold leaf on paper. Gift of Charles Lang Freer. F1906.59

Thayer struggled with this painting for eight years, although he was confident from the start that it would be among his "real contributions to humanity." He regarded it as his most fully inspired work, and explained to Charles Freer, who had agreed to purchase the painting, "You see, I take so deep a comfort in the consequences of really seeing a look in Gladys, that I know it will sooner or later be embodied on the canvas." Of that elusive expression, or "look," Thayer said, "wings are the normal symbol."

Soon after Freer first saw Thayer's work-in-progress in 1905, he commissioned the architect Stanford White (1853-1906) to design its frame. White sketched several possibilities, and Thayer, with advice from their mutual friend, the artist Thomas W. Dewing (1851-1938), selected an elegant, classical design inspired by Italian Renaissance altarpieces. The frame could not be produced in time for the Society of American Artists' exhibition, which opened in New York in March 1906, so A Winged Figure went on display in an antique frame borrowed from White's collection and modified to lit the canvas. That June, Stanford White was fatally shot in Madison Square Garden, and although Freer was prepared to have the Renaissance-style frame manufactured, Thayer decided in the end that he liked the old frame better, and Freer obligingly purchased it from the White estate.

Thayer was disappointed in the appearance of A Winged Figure at the 1906 exhibition and decided to repaint the picture, he informed his patron, "to make what we hoped for," adding that he was already hard at work "with all the dear old pregnancy feelings, so to speak." The painting was still in Thayer's hands in 1911, when he took it with him to Rome for finishing touches. When it finally arrived in Detroit, on New Year's Day, 1912, it bore a surprising new feature, a gilded wreath of laurel leaves, which Freer was not sure he liked -- "but, of course, as you were determined to add it," he wrote to the artist, "I shall probably, by degrees, be well pleased with it."

Winged Figure Seated upon a Rock

Winged Figure Seated upon a Rock, 1903/16, by Abbott Handerson Thayer (American, 1849-1921), Oil on canvas, Gift: of Charles Lang Freer F1915.67

Thayer's "wonderful old master system" was the idiosyncratic working method he developed in which several versions of a work were in progress at once. Studio assistants would produce replicas on which Thayer was free to rehearse any changes or additions he had in mind without risking the original canvas. In practice, Thayer often became as interested in the copies as in the original, and according to his student Richard Meryman would work on any one of them "as his fancy dictated." In some cases there might be as many as five separate canvases devoted to a single composition, each at a different stage of completion or, as Thayer put it, "maturing somewhat divergently into things that threaten to insist on being carried through by themselves."

Winged Figure Seated upon a Rock originated as one of the canvases related to the Stevenson Memorial of 1903, a tribute to one of Thayer's favorite authors,Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). The copy was still in the artist's studio in 1914, when Thayer made it into a memorial to his late wife, using Gladys as the model and inscribing a Latin dedication that means "Mother of my daughter! To you this monument." Thayer added a second inscription in April 1916 stipulating that the painting never be retouched, "not one pin-point," a provision meant to make the monument inviolable.

When Freer offered to buy this emotionally charged painting --"my heart's legacy to the world," as Thayer called it -- he must have asked that any remaining copies of the Stevenson Memorial be turned over to him, for another of the trial compositions seems to have made its way into his possession. Although the figure was probably copied by Thayer's student Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), Thayer himself appears to have painted the head, "the dominating central fact" of any of his figure paintings, according to Gladys Thayer. The facial expression, she said, "must sing as it were from corner to corner of the canvas."

Winged Figure (The Angel)

Winged Figure (The Angel), 1918, by Abbott Handerson Thayer (American, 1849-1921), Oil on canvas, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1919.7

During the year in which Abbott Thayer painted this work, his moods fluctuated between exhilaration and despair. His unstable mental state exhausted his wife, who went: to stay with her sister to recuperate; Thayer, ill-prepared to live alone, moved into a Boston hotel. He became deeply depressed and suicidal, and fled in terror to a Wellesley sanatorium, where he made a partial recovery. That spring, he confided to his wife that he remained "close (toes over the edge) to the last jump. Yet I can well believe there may come more Art out of its part of me, that seems actually to have gone on developing and faster and faster as life has proceeded."

Thayer was working on this winged figure in New York City that autumn, when Gladys joined him and Emma Thayer in a rented studio apartment. Hoping to ward off a relapse into the previous winter's desperate state, Thayer put himself under a doctor's care. The date inscribed on this canvas -- October 4, 1918 -- presumably indicates the day of its completion, which Thayer may have regarded as a sign of his salvation. When the painting was shown at the Knoedler Galleries in 1919, and later at Thayer's solo exhibition in Pittsburgh, it was formally titled The Angel. Charles Freer providentially bought it from the Knoedler exhibition, rescuing the Thayer family from the brink of financial collapse. Until he saw it, Freer had considered his Thayer collection to be complete. Freer died four months later.

The Freer Gallery of Art houses a collection of 19th-century and early 20th-century American art, including the world's largest group of works by James McNeill Whistler. The gallery is located on the National Mall, which is the two-mile-long park extending from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25. Admission is free.

Also see the Resource Library article:Abbott Thayer: The Nature of Art (5/16/99)

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

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