Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Abbott Handerson Thayer’s art and fin de siècle American culture

Gregory Rutecki
Cleveland, Ohio, United States


Bust self portrait of Thayer, a bald man with a mustache and a dark shirt and coat. His head is surrounded by green paint while the whole piece is on a white background and his shoulder and chest become sketchlike and indistinct.

Fig. 1: Self Portrait, 1898
Abbott Handerson Thayer
Snite Museum of Art, United States

Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849–1921) straddled the fin de siècle, and with his brush preserved an American counterculture for posterity. His variegated oeuvre reflects substantive reflections of his period’s medical and religious culture, as well as the earliest American naturalism. His was a momentous time as science unfolded the implications of the germ theory. Sanitaria sprang up to treat tuberculosis, a disease considered to be uniformly fatal for millennia. Thayer’s moment also functioned as a sentinel, conserving America’s natural beauty. For Thayer and like-minded colleagues, nature enriched humanity—providing physical, spiritual, and emotional sustenance. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau added divine attributes to nature through their contributions to Transcendental philosophy emanating from Concord. Thayer became de facto artist laureate for this message. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he moved as a child to Woodstock, Vermont, and in 1855 settled in Keene, New Hampshire.1 The relocations represented his father’s escape from urbanization. Thayer senior was a physician who had been Sanitary Inspector for New York City. He firmly believed poor urban sanitation was a proximate cause of disease and inculcated his germophobia into his son.2 Abbott’s artistic education began at age fifteen when Henry D. Morse tutored him in Boston.3 He married Kate Bloede in 1875 and they moved to Paris where Thayer studied at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts with Henri Lehmann and Jean-Leon Gerome.4 In the 1880s his portraits were selling for $1,500 to $2,000.5 He was elected President of the Society of American Artists in 1884.6 Then suddenly his world turned inside out. Kate died from tuberculosis (1891). This tragedy irrevocably altered his life’s trajectory. Only one to two weeks after his wife’s death (May 15, 1891),7 he fled the city, to paint in the wilderness of New Hampshire. He would live out his days under the implacable gaze of Mount Monadnock. What compelled the exodus? That story begins with the germ theory.


Consequences of the germ theory: microorganisms are almost everywhere

 Wooded hill and mountain. Trees are reflected in still water below.

Fig. 2: Monadnock in Winter, 1904
Abbott Handerson Thayer
Smithsonian Museum of Art, United States

“Probably no American Artist had quite so literally succumbed to the natural sublime: for Thayer, the mountain was the source of all aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual well-being.” After his death in 1921, Thayer’s remains were cremated and scattered over Monadnock.46 

Thayer’s decision to abandon a profitable urban career was contingent on his aversion to “germs.” Like his culture-at-large, he could not escape the conclusions of the germ theory. The lay press wrote, “The higher life (humans) is . . . everywhere interpenetrated . . . by the lower life (bacteria).”8 The theory altered everyone’s perception of the air they breathed, from the pristine to an atmosphere surfeit with filthy germs. Thayer’s nephew Barry reminisced, “Uncle Abbott had a morbid fear of the germs they (his children) might pick up at school.”9 Thayer wore “Jaeger” underwear. Physician Gustav Jaeger marketed “100% pure, undyed (sic) wool underwear,” which “prevented the retention of ‘noxious exhalations’ and tuberculosis.”10 The Thayer brand of “asepsis” was extreme. He and his children slept outside, winter and summer, under shacks concealed behind bushes. The Thayer method was a hedge against germs, protecting his children, “whom he feared were subject to tuberculosis.”11

Was Thayer mad? Rather, one may argue, he was thoroughly consistent with the science of his day. Physicians Edward Trudeau, William Osler, Austin Flint, and Alfred Blalock espoused, and in Blalock’s instance chose, sanitaria to cure tuberculosis. Their reason was not superstition. Nascent science informed them. The germ theory, as it contrasted any metropolis with the mountains, estimated bacterial densities in myriad locations. Culture media were exposed to the “outdoors.” Microbes per meter3 of air at the Hotel Dieu in Paris—a paradigm for urbanization—peaked at 79,000; in contrast, the mountains contained the lowest counts, one microbe in the same volume.12 The results were obvious to a generation seeking a sanctuary from germs. Alfred Loomis, physician friend of Edward Trudeau—father of the American sanitarium movement—opined, “Extreme cold and high altitude render air aseptic”13 and “The invalid, therefore, is surrounded by a zone of pure air, which separates him, as it were, from the germ pervaded world.”(italics are this author’s).14

Another justification came from a Trudeau experiment.15 He connected tuberculosis to “environmental” differences. He separated rabbits into three groups (n=15 total; 5 per group). Group One was inoculated with tuberculosis (right lung and neck). These animals then mimicked an “urban lifestyle.” They were housed in a cramped space, without “clean” air. Group Two served as controls. They were confined similarly to Group One, but not inoculated. The final five rabbits were inoculated as Group One, but they were set free on an island, with generous natural resources and without crowding. Four of five Group One rabbits died, and on necropsy bore the evidence for extensive tuberculosis. The fifth animal was sacrificed and had advanced disease. The Group Two controls survived, and although emaciated, were free of TB. One out of five Group Three rabbits died. The dead rabbit had evidence of TB, but less extensively than Group One subjects. The other four in Group Three were without obvious infection. Trudeau concluded, “Environment is the most potent factor in the causation of tuberculosis.” There is no evidence that Thayer was aware of these studies, but his behavior implied his understanding. He fled the city after his wife’s death and his obsessive rituals at Monadnock were consonant with a first generation interpretation of the germ theory. His art, more so, lent credence to his reactions to germ science (Painting 1)16: “subsequent (to the) death of his first wife, Kate . . . Thayer sought to protect himself and his family . . . (by) adopting a therapeutic . . . life. (italics are this author’s) That sense of a therapeutic atmosphere is rendered in Thayer’s paintings of (Mount) Monadnock in winter, a time of year when freezing temperatures had killed . . . sources of contagions. Thayer’s emphasis on the trees surrounding the mountain further point to Dublin’s (Monadnock’s surrounding community) therapeutic qualities . . .”17 The trees are a boundary between the bacteria of cities and the pure air of the mountains. “Thayer’s art was motivated by disease, which becomes an organizing topos through which his paintings take shape.”18 “Thayer’s loosely rendered bank of trees limits human access; snow also functions as purifying agent, cleansing the mountain of any threats to its ‘primeval wild nature purity.’ More than a mountain, the atmosphere of Thayer’s haven provided a refuge from modernism’s germs.”19 Thayer’s raison d’etre at Mount Monadnock was similar to Trudeau’s at Saranac Lake, the location of his sanitarium.


A Second Attribute: Naturalism and Conservation

 A winged girl with brown hair and eyes in a white belted tunic looking off somewhere indistinct
Fig. 3: Angel, 1887
Abbott Handerson Thayer
Smithsonian Museum of Art, United States

There was also Thayer the conservationist and naturalist. His nephew Barry said that he patterned his life on Audubon.20 Abbott Thayer cautioned sojourners to Monadnock to look without taking or damaging, paraphrasing Emerson. He intervened on behalf of endangered species, especially birds. He observed that kingfishers only eat the least valuable minnows that would otherwise “devour” the spawn of other fish. He said regarding an individual who shot and killed these birds, “Beg him not to sacrifice our kingfishers . . . classes that persecute these birds before their extermination shall have robbed all nature lovers of the measureless charm of their lives . . . there is probably no animal whose life . . . would justify our killing him.”21

He not only inhabited an early template for environmentalism, but in the same context, contributed scholarly scientific work as well.22, 23 In a personal letter he reminisced, “The study of natural history, especially of birds, began in me almost in my babyhood and before I was nine I had begun the habit of trying to paint them & at seventeen, I had made up my mind that painting was my life work.”24 But his art and science united. A generation earlier, Charles Darwin (February 23, 1867) asked why caterpillars are so beautifully colored.25 Thayer proposed “countershading” to answer the question. He observed that colors and patterns on an insect or animal represent the normal background of a species essential for survival when hunted. In his son Gerald’s words, “A butterfly . . . patterned with black and yellow . . . passes across shadowy interstices amidst vegetation, its black will disappear . . . Thus the watching eye is condemned to see only flickering glints of color . . . such constantly repeated metamorphoses . . . must strongly baffle a pursuer.”26

The theory of countershading came to be identified as “Thayer’s Law.”27 It has been said of Thayer, “Now & then in the history of science there occurs an artist in whom even the scientists recognize a man of science, a scientist in whom even artists admit the artist.”28


A Spiritual Tie that Binds: Concord’s Transcendentalism in Thayer’s Art

 Woman in green sitting on throne flanked by a boy on her right, looking at the viewer, and a girl on her left, holding up flowers to her.
Fig. 4: Virgin Enthroned, 1891
Abbott Handerson Thayer
Smithsonian Museum of Art, United States

Was Abbott Handerson Thayer a Transcendentalist? There are hints based on circumstantial evidence. Thayer personally corresponded with Ralph Waldo Emerson.29 It was Emerson who opined God existed as “soul at the center of nature.”30 Thayer was raised Unitarian. During his childhood, his family attended the Unitarian Church of William E. Channing. It was Channing, later becoming a Transcendentalist, who influenced the movement’s early thought by attributing divinity to the human soul.31 Similarly, Thayer said, Monadnock was “a no-man’s land of immortal beauty where every step leads to God.”32 Since Thayer is recognized primarily as an artist, scrutinizing his paintings can better capture his religious perspective.

Thayer’s portrait (Painting 2) “Angel” (1889) serves as an example of his perspective on Kate’s transcendence. Lee said “Angel(s) represent(s) Mary . . . the artist’s first daughter.”33 The timing of the painting coincides with the terminal phase of Kate’s illness in a sanitarium.34 The image may imply an “angel of death,” a title used in the nineteenth century in regard to TB. “Mary’s pale, chalky skin, emphasized by the whiteness of her wings and robe, conveys a fragile appearance resembling the effects of consumption.”35 Lee alludes to the tension, “vacillating between healthy daughter and sickly mother in a liminal space that collapses the promise of wholesome youth with the horror of bodily disintegration.”36 Schwain observes, “Mary as an Angel symbolically marks the absence of the woman Thayer once wrote he ‘utterly worshipped’ and considered more God-like than anyone else.”37 Thayer’s art rendered Kate spiritually proximate after her death. In fact he said, “I want the image (Kate) of one I worship to become visible, for all time to this world.”38

Thayer’s “Protestant Madonnas” also are infused with Transcendental philosophy. Since this particular religious system proposes a “union of actual & ideal,”39 or a living realm occupied by embodied souls, Thayer’s Madonnas represent a period’s ideal for womanhood.40 She was a universal mother for troubled times. “Women were perceived to live outside the realm of industrialization and urbanization . . . to retain their innocence and purity, (responsible) for the redemption of their families.”41 Schwain observes that, “strong challenges to traditional forms of family life and religious belief as a result of rapid industrialization” contrasted with women’s positive virtues.42 The addition of wings to Thayer Madonnas signified a woman’s ability to move between earth (the mutable) and heaven (the immutable/transcendent).43 “Portrayed as winged beings, women are emissaries between us and God.”44 If women moved away from the corrupting influences of modernism, they retained a transcendent purity. Therefore women are conduits of transcendence through their embodiment in a material world.45


A Coda to Thayer’s Art

For the student of cultural-medical history, Thayer’s art deserves serious study. He was successful in reflecting a complex, minority, and respected counterculture. Seemingly disparate disciplines were united by Thayer’s brush, in a common cause, sharing a desire to preserve the wilderness, initiating a scientific revolution through microbiology, and foreshadowing the environmentalism of today. Thayer painted and lived each and every facet of that philosophy and is our humane compass for his era. Thayer, Trudeau, Loomis, and Emerson come together in a manner conducive to a holistic understanding of medicine, art, and religion at the fin de siècle.



  1. Corley E. A Finding Aid to the Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer Family Papers, 1851-1999 in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. (www.aaa.si.edu/askus); page 2.
  2. Lee E. Therapeutic Beauty: Abbott Thayer, Antimodernism, and the Fear of Disease. American Art 2004; 18 (3) 32-51, page 4.
  3. Ibid., Corley, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, page 34.
  4. Murray R. Abbott Thayer’s “Stevenson Memorial” 1999; 13 (2): 2-25, page 4.
  5. Ibid. page 4.
  6. Ibid. pages 4-5.
  7. Ibid., Lee, E., page 40.
  8. Tomes, N. The Private Side of Public Health: Sanitary Science, Domestic Hygiene, and the Germ Theory, 1870-1900. Bull. Hist. Med. 1990; 64: 509-539, page 509.
  9. Faulkner B. Sketches from an Artist’s Life. 1973; William L. Bauhan, Dublin, New Hampshire, page 24.
  10. Ibid., Lee, E., page 50.
  11. Ibid., Faulkner B., page 20.
  12. Notter J.L. “Air” in A Treatise on Hygiene and Public Health, 1892 Vol. 1, pages 4-6. ed. Stevenson T. & Murphy SF.
  13. Loomis A.L. Evergreen Forests as a Therapeutic Agent in Pulmonary Phthisis. 1887; Climatological Association meeting 4:109-20, page 111.
  14. Ellison DL. Healing Tuberculosis in the Woods: Medicine and Science at the End of the Nineteenth Century. Contributions to Medical Studies 1994; 41: 1- 201, page 48.
  15. Ibid. pages 87-89.
  16. Ibid., Lee E., page 41.
  17. Ibid. Lee E., 37-38.
  18. Ibid. Lee E., 34.
  19. Ibid. Lee E., 36-38.
  20. Ibid., Faulkner B., page 23
  21. Ibid., Lee E., pages 36 and 38.
  22. Thayer, A.H., Camouflage. Scientific Monthly 1918; 7:481-494.
  23. Thayer, A.H. The Law which Underlies Protective Coloration. Auk 1896; 13:124-129.
  24. Ibid., Corley, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Series 2, Correspondence.
  25. Boynton M.F. Abbott Thayer and Natural History. Osiris, Vol. 10 (1952) 542-555, page 545.
  26. Ibid., Boynton M.F., page 548.
  27. Ibid., Boynton, M.F., page 542.
  28. Ibid., Boynton, M.F., page 542.
  29. Ibid., Corley, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Box 1, Folder 30.
  30. Schwain K. Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age. Cornell University Press, Ithaca N.Y. 2008, page 118.
  31. Ibid., Schwain, K. page 108.
  32. Merryman R.S. Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921). Monadnock Art: Friends of the Dublin Art Colony, 2006. Accessed at: http://www.monadnockart.org/history-abbott-handerson-thayer.html, July 20th, 2012.
  33. Ibid., Lee, E., page 42.
  34. Ibid. Lee, E., page 42.
  35. Ibid., Lee, E., page 42.
  36. Ibid., Lee. E., page 42.
  37. Ibid., Lee, E., page 42.
  38. Ibid., Schwain, K., page 111
  39. Ibid., Schwain, K. page 105.
  40. Ibid., Schwain, K. page 107-108
  41. Ibid., Schwain, K., page 107
  42. Ibid., Schwain, K., page 115.
  43. Ibid., Schwain, K., page 118.
  44. Ibid., Schwain, page 121.
  45. Ibid., Schwain, K. page 118.
  46. Murphy F. The Book of Nature: American Painters and the Natural Sublime. Accessed at http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/8aa/8aa321.htm July, 6th, 2012.



GREGORY W. RUTECKI received his medical degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago in 1974. He completed Internal Medicine training at the Ohio State University Medical Center (1978) and his fellowship in Nephrology at the University of Minnesota (1980). After twelve years of private practice in general nephrology, he entered a teaching career at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. While at Northwestern, he was the E. Stephen Kurtides Chair of Medical Education. He now practices general internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2015 – Volume 7, Issue 1
Winter 2015 |  Sections  |  Art Essays

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