Combining a talent for observation, a knowledge of optics, and a love of natural history, the American painter and amateur naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849–1921) carved out a unique niche for himself in the space between the discourses of art and science. Consider the paintings Peacock in the Woods and Red Flamingos, The Skies They Simulate, both dating from around 1909. These are two of the many images demonstrating animal coloration Thayer created with the assistance of his students and colleagues for publication in his book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern: Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer's Disclosures. These remarkable images illustrate Thayer's belief that all animal coloration, regardless of its apparent visibility, was the result of the natural-selection process that allowed animals to go unnoticed by predators or prey. Despite the evident fallacy of this belief, Thayer made a significant contribution to the study of camouflage by describing and differentiating the ways in which animals conceal themselves.
A firm proponent of Darwinism, Thayer believed that the animal coloration he observed was the result of fundamental aspects of evolutionary development. Moreover, he believed that in the matter of animal camouflage, Nature was, in effect, acting as an artist, using color and light intentionally to create optical effects; Thayer equated Art and Nature as agents in the processes that had brought about evolutionary change. Thayer was by no means the first to observe that animals used their coloration to hide themselves in nature. However, in his groundbreaking article "The Law Which Underlies Protective Coloration," written in 1896 for the American Ornithologists' Union journal The Auk, Thayer elucidated the principles of counter-shading, whereby animals were made to appear "flat" by the use of graduated colors and tones of feathers, scales or fur. This counteracts the effects of sunlight and shadow, rendering an animal's coloration darkest where it receives the greatest illumination, and lightest on the shadowy regions of its underside. The resultant reduction of the appearance of contour makes the animal seem to lose its volume and dimension. As a result of this optical illusion, "the spectator," Thayer wrote, "seems to see right through the space really occupied by an opaque animal." Thayer's first scientific article received widespread and justified praise. Using the lan-guage of art and optics, he had, for perhaps the first time, explained precisely why many animals seem to blend in with their surroundings. Thrilled by his success, Thayer followed this essay with others, increasingly supercilious in tone. In 1903, he extended his powers of observation to elucidate another principle of camouflage, the disruptive (he used the term "ruptive") effects of patterned markings such as stripes or spots. These markings disguise an animal's contours by making its contiguous parts seem unrelated to one another. This principle of concealment proved to be temptingly and dangerously elastic; virtually any kind of coloring and patterning could be argued to be "ruptive" under certain circumstances.
Despite his increasingly pompous attitude, at this stage Thayer
willingly acknowledged that other scientists had reached similar
conclusions and he retained an open mind about alternative forms of
animal coloration. He commenced lecture-demonstrations, both in America
and abroad, using illuminated shadowboxes containing sculptures,
stuffed animals, and decoys to orchestrate elaborate performances of
the principle of counter-shading. His enthusiasm frequently overwhelmed
his audience: He vigorously encouraged observers at a 1910 lecture at
the Smithsonian Institution to approximate the viewpoint of a predator
by lying face-down on their stomachs, a request which the audience of
ornithologists warily refused.
A popular society artist and renowned figure painter in the 1880s and
1890s, Thayer had been a leader of the American Renaissance. He
believed that his position as an accomplished artist and an observer of
natural history made him uniquely qualified to understand and identify
the principles of animal coloration. He wrote in 1903, "Nature has
evolved actual art on the bodies of animals, and only an artist can
read it." Perhaps this degree of hubris was what led him to
subsequently take his ideas to utterly absurd limits. In 1909, Thayer
and his son Gerald published the book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom
with illustrations provided by Thayer in collaboration with Gerald, his
second wife Emma, and students Rockwell Kent and Richard Meryman.
Black-and-white photographs were exhibited alongside paintings
(reproduced in color) to demonstrate concealing camouflage in mammals,
reptiles, birds, and insects.
The book, written primarily by Gerald, provided an exhaustive and
valuable compendium of examples describing and demonstrating animal
concealment. But the introduction written by Abbott professed a new
level of arrogance. Thayer now claimed that all animal coloration, even
the most flamboyant, served only
to conceal the animal from detection. He boldly proclaimed, "All
patterns and colors whatsoever of all animals that ever prey or are
preyed upon are under certain normal circumstances obliterative." The
brightest coloration and patterning on an animal, such as that of a
fluorescent flamingo or iridescent peacock, disrupts the animal's form,
by "destroying the apparent continuity of surface." The eye of the
observer, whether predator or prey, skips over the patterns and fails
to see the hidden animal.
This is the reason why Thayer created such apparently ludicrous, although beautiful, paintings as Peacock in the Woods and Red Flamingos, The Skies They Simulate.
Thayer submitted these images in his book as evidence that "ruptive"
coloration could, under particular circumstances, serve to conceal even
the most vivid animal. The scientific world reacted to Thayer's now
preposterous assertions with predictable skepticism and criticism.
Former President Teddy Roosevelt, himself an amateur naturalist and
world traveler, vigorously attacked Thayer's beliefs in his own account
of his African safaris, African Game Trails, and in a
series of subsequent articles. Thayer's reputation as a scientist
suffered because of this heated debate, which lasted for several years
and generated shrilly written defenses published in a number of
magazines. However, it also secured the attention of the general
reading public, which was not only fascinated by the scientific
discourse but by the personalities of the individuals in contention.
The stakes in the war of words over animal camouflage were enormously
high for both Roosevelt and Thayer. Roosevelt, making his own bid for
validity as an expert on natural history, ridiculed Thayer's apparent
belief that because an event could
be imagined and subsequently depicted in art, it therefore must be
fact. Thayer was indifferent to the charges that art could not be used
as scientific proof, chastising Roosevelt and other non-believers
because they did not put his ideas to the test. Indeed, Thayer felt
that he and his fellow artists were uniquely capable of seeing beyond
the limitations of scientific thought. Thayer repeatedly invited
Roosevelt to visit his home for debate over the points of dispute, but
By this point, with so much of his fervent belief in the value of art
to the pursuit of science on the line, Thayer was carried away by his
own willful need to be right. The artist dismissed his increasingly
vociferous critics and was regarded by many as a crackpot. What else
would one be willing to claim of a man who, determined to vindicate
himself, traveled to the West Indies, located a flock of flamingos at
dusk, and lay down in the swamp to see whether they would "disappear"
against the background of the setting sun from the perspective of a
hungry alligator? Yet, despite these investigations, he failed to
notice that flamingos are active during the whole day, are not preyed
upon by alligators in saline ponds, and feed primarily on sightless
organisms. Moreover, seen against the light of the sunset, a flamingo
will not appear to blend in with it, but will stand out as a dark
shadow against the sky.
Thayer seems to have been stubbornly resistant to questioning and to
contradictory evidence. He maintained that because an animal could be
shown to disappear, this therefore indicated that at one evolutionarily
crucial point it did. For his argument about concealing coloration and
natural selection to be correct, he thought, he did not need to prove
that every instance of animal coloration worked against any background.
He merely needed to show that sometimes, against certain backgrounds
and in certain conditions, his ideas did, in fact, work.
Thayer's beliefs about disruptive patterning and coloration finally did
find considerable practical use in the development of military
camouflage. While the US government had been resistant at the turn of
the century to Thayer's exhortations that "ruptive" or "dazzle"
camouflage could be useful in wartime, by the advent of World War I,
they became a receptive audience. A special group of artists,
designers, and carpenters designated Company A of the 40th Engineers
was enlisted as the "Camouflage Corps" to study and implement the
principles of concealing coloration. The group included several of
Thayer's colleagues, students, and friends. Thayer's last article on
the principles of camouflage was dedicated to elaborating the ways in
which optical effects could be used by the Allied forces to confuse
enemies on both land and sea. Thus, although not himself an active
member of the team who developed military camouflage, Thayer's beliefs
about disruptive optics found both staunch support and pragmatic use.
Toward the end of his life, Thayer's style of personality—the
restlessly inquisitive, boundary-crossing, gentleman amateur—was out of
favor. In American culture, his kind was increasingly replaced by
specialized, Taylorized corporation men, who found their niche in
society and remained there life-long. Thayer overstepped the bounds of
his professional identity, attempting to be simultaneously an artist
and scientist, amateur and professional. In the early twentieth
century, America's artistic tastes had irrevocably changed, and
scientific professionalization increasingly discouraged the kinds of
serious dabbling that Thayer felt was his greatest asset. Yet, as his
career as an artist waned, Thayer had taken the risky step of following
his passions, and ultimately is remembered as a truly original thinker.
In today's corporate climate, Thayer's method of "thinking outside the
box" seems both courageous and admirable. However, his example
nevertheless reminds us about the dangers inherent in disciplinary
"boundary crossing;" Thayer felt resistance to his ideas stemmed only
from his status as an outsider, when in fact, his fierce determination
to succeed as both a scientist and an artist, and his stubborn pride in
his accomplishments, did not allow him to see the fallacies in some of
his best ideas.
- For more on the artistic career of Thayer, see Nelson C. White, Abbott H. Thayer, Painter and Naturalist (Hartford, Ct.: Connecticut Printers, 1951); and Ross Anderson, Abbott Handerson Thayer, exh. cat. (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum, 1982). Art historian Alexander Nemerov presents an interesting view of Thayer's obsession with camouflage in "Vanishing Americans: Abbott Thayer, Theodore Roosevelt and the Attraction of Camouflage," American Art, 11:2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 50–81. Nemerov suggests that Thayer's preoccupation with invisibility was not limited to the natural world, but also reflected issues involving social ostentation and display prevalent in late-nineteenth-century American genteel culture.
- Gerald H. and Abbot H. Thayer, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise through Color and Pattern: Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer's Discoveries (New York: Macmillan, 1909).
- Roy R. Behrens, Art and Camouflage: Concealment and Deception in Nature, Art and War (Cedar Falls, Ia.: North American Review, 1981), p. 24.
- Nemerov presents a fascinating examination of the social circumstances underlying the correspondence between Roosevelt and Thayer in "Vanishing Americans," p. 79. He argues that Roosevelt felt the very practice of camouflage was dishonest and cowardly.
- No expert on the behavior or habitat of flamingos myself, I am indebted for these and other insights on the methodological implications of Thayer's work to Stephen Jay Gould, "Red Wings in the Sunset," Natural History, 94:5 (May, 1985), pp. 12–24.
Emily Gephart writes on American art and culture at the turn of the century. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT.
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