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Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites / by L. J. Swinburne

Smithsonian Libraries
From the New Englander, v. 8, July and Sept. 1885.

Also available online.


The Women Behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Smithsonian Magazine

The women of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood have gone down in history as muses. Despite being artists in their own right, they are remembered as symbols, rather than creators, of beauty. Now, an ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London gives these long-overlooked figures a space of their own, sharing their stories through works of art, poems and embroidery.

On view through January 26, “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” centers on 12 women—among others, the roster includes Christina Rossetti, Effie Millais and Elizabeth Siddal—and their contributions to the male-dominated narrative of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a circle of artists active between 1850 and 1900. The show draws on unseen works from both public and private collections around the world to reshape perceptions of these individuals as creative artists and poets who advocated for their own stories to be told rather than simply objectified muses.

“Visitors see these women’s own art, and their roles as collaborators and business partners, not just as lovers and wives,” writes the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis. “The captions restore names to the faces gazing placidly from postcards and posters.”

John Everett Millais, Sophy Gray, 1856 (Courtesy of National Gallery / Private collections) Dante Gabriel Rossetti,The Blue Bower, 1865 (The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham)

In 1848, then-students Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in opposition to the more traditional art espoused by the Royal Academy. The original founders, all of whom were under the age of 25, soon invited four other male painters, sculptors and critics to join their secret society. Members heavily rejected the Academy’s promotion of Renaissance master Raphael, as well as the genre painting popular at the time.

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the Brotherhood’s work focused on religious and medieval themes. Painted with maximum realism inspired by 15th-century Florentine and Sienese paintings, the young artists’ naturalistic creations were populated by beautiful women. The cryptic initials “PRB” appeared in the bottom corner of early Pre-Raphaelite works.

Simply put, the Brotherhood was a boys’ club that intentionally excluded women.

“Though its goals were ‘serious and heartfelt,’” explains Dinah Roe, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, for the British Library, “the PRB was founded in a spirit of waggish male camaraderie which expressed itself in pranks, late-night smoking sessions and midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens.”

The Brotherhood’s models, who often doubled as the artists’ lovers, were usually at the center of their creations. But some, like Siddal, used their seemingly passive roles as models to fund their own artistic careers alongside their elite husbands.

Evelyn De Morgan, Night and Sleep, 1878 (De Morgan Collection, courtesy of the De Morgan Foundation)

Siddal is among the Pre-Raphaelite women painted over by history. She started modeling not to gain the attention of men, but to fund her own artistic practice. Initially working part time at her parents’ hat shop while modeling on the side, Siddal gained an unprecedented amount of popularity in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, with her likeness becoming a symbol of feminine beauty.

Lying motionless, with her pale, delicate face encircled by a fiery halo of red hair, Siddal is the subject of one of the movement’s most famous paintings, Millais’ Ophelia. Following the success of this piece, Siddal became perhaps the face of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. She later married artist and Brotherhood member Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who drew and painted her “thousands” of times, according to the BBC’s Lucinda Hawksley.

Siddal’s own artistic journey was far more extensive than previously believed. As seen in the exhibition, she created paintings with archetypal Pre-Raphaelite qualities, including detailed medieval scenes and precise figures. She wrote haunting poetry, drawing on her experiences with drug addiction, an unfaithful husband and a stillborn daughter, but didn’t live to see them in print; the verses were only published after her death in 1862.

“Far from passive mannequins, […] these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it,” says curator Jan Marsh in a statement. “It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1877 (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art / Private collections) William Holman Hunt, Il Dolce far Niente,1866 (Private Collection, © Grant Ford Ltd)

The exhibit, described by Lewis as “revelatory,” includes more examples of the Brotherhood’s depictions of its 12 subjects than works by the women artists themselves. This dynamic offers visitors a sharp contrast—one can see the Brotherhood’s interpretation of the models next to works that envision them as more than muses.

The Pre-Raphaelite sister who perhaps best exemplifies this dichotomy is Jane Morris. With her full lips and strong features, Morris caught the attention of several Pre-Raphaelite men eager to capture her beauty through art. Yet it was a portrait drawn by another woman, Evelyn De Morgan, in 1904, that depicted a more authentic version of Morris’ feminine beauty by showing her signature raven-colored hair turning grey with age.

Joanna Boyce Wells, Thou Bird of God, 1861 (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art / Private collections)

In many ways, the work completed by these women can be seen as a rare act of feminism for the time period. By shedding light on these objectified women, “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” gives visitors the opportunity to gain a holistic view of the groundbreaking sisterhood.

“It is not sufficient to merely add some women to the Pre-Raphaelite canon,” writes Elizabeth Prettejohn in The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. “Instead, it is a matter of writing a wholly new, and different, story about Pre-Raphaelitism—a story in which the activities of women are no longer incidental, but necessary to the plot.”

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” is on view at the National Gallery in London through January 26.

The Pre-Raphaelite Era: Delaware Art Museum

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

A Defiant Knight

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image features a half-length figure of a knight in armor. The drawing appeared as an illustration in "Le Morte D'Arthur" (The Death of Arthur). Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.The publisher J.M. Dent was an admirer of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, founded in 1889 and known for expensive, lavish publications featuring illustrations and decorations by artists such as Edward Burne-Jones printed from hand-cut woodblocks. Dent conceived the idea of producing books in the style of the Kelmscott Press but at a much lower cost,...

Newly Digitized Archives Reveal the Inner Lives of Artists

Smithsonian Magazine

The personal lives of artists don’t just result in great art—sometimes, they’re works of art within themselves. Take Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose years-long relationship with a model named Fanny Cornforth resulted in some of the Pre-Raphaelite period’s greatest paintings. Now, you can learn more about Rossetti’s love affair—and other artists’ personal lives—with a newly digitized collection of documents.

In a release, the Delaware Art Museum announced that it has put 500 archival items online in a bid to open its collections to the world. The digital collections portal, which will continue to be updated with new artifacts, includes everything from documents about the museum itself to the correspondence of legendary illustrator Howard Pyle and painter John Sloan, who was part of New York’s influential “Ashcan School.” Among its treasures are revealing letters between Dante Gabriel Rossetti—founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—and Cornforth.

The romance between Rossetti and Conforth, born Sarah Cox, resulted in both inspiration and scandal. Cornforth, a servant with luxurious hair, caught the married Rossetti’s eye and became his model. By the time Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth, committed suicide after a stillbirth in 1862, Conforth was his mistress. Soon, she moved in and became his housekeeper, too.

Rossetti’s friends were scandalized by his open relationship with a working-class woman with a Cockney accent. But the relationship continued throughout the rest of his life. Even after she was kicked out of his house by concerned family members, he sent her drawings, fond letters and some financial support, to the horror of his family and friends.

“You are the only person whom it is my duty to provide for, and you may be sure I should do my utmost as long as there was breath in my body or a penny in my purse,” Rossetti wrote to Cornforth in 1872 in a letter that apparently didn’t include money. “If you can get on for the present moment without my help, it will be a great assistance to me,” he wrote five years later.

But Rossetti’s health was worsening, and after his death in 1882 Cronforth suffered from declining physical and mental health. When she died in 1909, she was buried in a common grave.

Though the Delaware Art Museum is known for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite art and artifacts, it was forced to sell at least one of its precious paintings to stay afloat. As Randy Kennedy notes for The New York Times, the museum paid off millions of dollars of debt by “de-accessioning” some of its most important paintings.

The practice has become common for museums struggling to survive, but as reported in 2015, it’s a controversial one—and the Delaware Art Museum was even sanctioned for the sale.

The digitization effort offers a happier reason for the museum's collection to be back in the news—and is a neat way to preserve and share these artistic treasures with the world.

Factory mark

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Printed in red on pink field with white reserves. Floral design in Pre-Raphaelite style.

Ground Up Mummies Were Once an Ingredient in Paint

Smithsonian Magazine

If the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood look otherworldly, that’s because in some ways they are. The brown paint the artists used was called Mummy Brown, because it was actually made out of ground up Egyptian mummies.

Gledon Mellow at the blog Symbiartic explains that the brown was good for mixing, and fell somewhere between raw umber’s nearly green brown and burnt umber’s ruddy tone. Mellow writes:

The pigment itself wasn’t easily imitated. It wasn’t just made of regular long-dried out corpses. The mummification process involved asphaltum or bitumen, often in place of the removed organs. Whole mummies were then ground for commercial and just plain wrong use. Mummy Brown was a fugitive colour, meaning it faded easily. While it was easy for 19th century painters to give up using it due to ick, gross it was still manufactured long after. That practice didn’t end until the 1960s, when paint companies more or less ran out.

When one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters found out about the origin of Mummy Brown, he was pretty disturbed. Philip McCouat, an art historian, has a longer history of the pigment, and in it quotes Edward Burnes-Jones’s wife, who remembers when her husband learned of the pigments origin. 

Edward scouted [scornfully rejected] the idea of the pigment having anything to do with a mummy — said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it”

According to McCouat, Burnes-Jones was friends with Rudyard Kipling, who later found a tube of Mummy Brown and buried it in the yard to try and right the wrongs of using it as paint. In 1964, the manufacturer who made Mummy Brown reportedly ran out of mummies to grind up. ““We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere,” the managing director said, “but not enough to make any more paint. We sold our last complete mummy some years ago for, I think, £3. Perhaps we shouldn't have. We certainly can't get any more.”

Maid in Glass

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
vedder mermaidPerhaps better known for his illustrations of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Elihu Vedder’s prolific career began in the 1860’s, when the Hudson River School was in its prime, and ended in the early 20th century, when Modernism was taking root. His work, influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, captured the imagination of late 19th-century audiences. Born...

The Titan’s Daughter

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Cushion cover, ca. 1900, England, embroidered by May Morris (British, 1862–1938), silk embroidery on linen plain weave, Gift of Mrs. Curtice Hitchcock, 1975-19-1May Morris will forever be in the shadow of her famous father William Morris, the chief protagonist of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and of her mother, the Pre-Raphaelite beauty Jane Burden. Yet she was an accomplished artist in her own right, a fact evidenced by the skillful design and craftsmanship of this cushion...

Autumn Sunshine

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Whistler's Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit that features a Victorian street map of Chelsea, an area said to be "owned" by James McNeill Whistler because of his many paintings and etchings of its steet scenes. Those scenes can be viewed by clicking on the map.

Arsenic and Old Tastes Made Victorian Wallpaper Deadly

Smithsonian Magazine

Victorian wallpaper, much like many of this year’s runway styles, was brightly colored and often full of floral designs.

Those looks might strike you dead, but in the Victorian period, wallpaper could–and did–kill. In one sense, it wasn’t that unusual, writes Haniya Rae for The Atlantic. Arsenic was everywhere in the Victorian period, from food coloring to baby carriages. But the vivid floral wallpapers were at the center of a consumer controversy about what made something safe to have in your home.

The root of the problem was the color green, writes art historian and Victorianist Lucinda Hawksley for The Telegraph. After a Swedish chemist named Carl Sheele used copper arsenite to create a bright green, “Scheele’s Green” became the in color, particularly popular with the Pre-Raphaelite movement of artists and with home decorators catering to everyone from the emerging middle class upwards. Copper arsenite, of course, contains the element arsenic.

“Before the craze for these colors had even reached Britain, the dangers associated with arsenical paints had been acknowledged in Europe, but these findings were largely ignored by British manufacturers,” she writes.  

One prominent doctor named Thomas Orton nursed a family through a mysterious sickness that ultimately killed all four of their children. In desperation, one of the things he started to do was make notes about their home and its contents. He found nothing wrong with the water supply or the home’s cleanliness.

The one thing he worried about: the Turners' bedroom had green wallpaper, she writes. “For Orton, it brought to mind an unsettling theory that had been doing the rounds in certain medical circles for years: that wallpaper could kill.” This theory held that, even though nobody was eating the paper (and people did know arsenic was deadly if eaten), it could cause people to get sick and die.

Image by © 2016 Crown Copyright. This wallpaper was produced by John Todd Merrick & Company, London, UK, 1845. (original image)

Image by The Morgan Library, New York. The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) describes the gradual descent into madness of a woman who is confined by her husband in a room covered in patterned yellow wallpaper. She begins to hallucinate and notices a strange smell. This corresponds to toxicology reports of wallpaper containing arsenical pigments emitting a distinctive smelling gas in damp conditions. (original image)

Image by From the private collection of Madame Talbot. Paris Green wasn’t a paint, although it looks like one. It was a Victorian rodent and insect poison. (original image)

Image by Wellcome Library, London. The Arsenic Waltz (1862), by Punch cartoonist John Leech, depicts the high price of wearing arsenic-dyed fashion: literally, dancing with death. (original image)

Image by Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935 (1935-31). Mary Magdalene (c. 1859) by Frederick Sandys has a background of fashionable emerald green Victorian wallpaper, which very likely would have contained arsenic. (original image)

Hawksley recently published a book focusing on the presence of arsenic in Victorian life. Its title, Bitten By Witch Fever, is a reference to something once said by the man at the center of all parts of this story: William Morris.

Among his many other pastimes, both professional and personal, Morris was an artist and designer associated with both the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts interior design movement. He was the designer of the most famous wallpaper of the nineteenth century. And he was the son of the man whose company was the largest arsenic producer in the country.

Although others suspected arsenical wallpaper, Morris didn’t believe—or claimed not to believe—that arsenic was bad for you. Morris held that because he had arsenical wallpaper in his home and his friends hadn’t caused them to get sick, so it had to be something else.

“In 1885—years after he had stopped using arsenical colors in his designs—he wrote to his friend Thomas Wardle: ’As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to image: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.’”

Most people didn't agree. Morris, like other wallpaper-makers, had stopped using arsenic in their papers as the result of public pressure. As newspaper reports and other media popularized the idea that arsenic was toxic, and not just when ingested, consumers turned away.  

Tate Britain's Female-Led Exhibition Is a Hopeful Sign of What's to Come

Smithsonian Magazine

Women in art had some cause for celebration this year, with unheralded artists ranging from Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier to Renaissance portraitists Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola, Swedish abstract art pioneer Hilma af Klint, and Old Master Artemisia Gentileschi headlining—or poised to headline—blockbuster retrospectives across the globe. But the path toward parity is still a work in progress: According to statistics compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based National Museum of Women in the Arts, women (who constitute 51 percent of contemporary visual artists) working across arts professions make around $20,000 less per year than their male counterparts. And, between 2007 and 2013, only 27 percent of 590 major exhibitions held by institutions across the United States were devoted to female artists.

Come April 2019, Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, Tate Britain will take steps to subvert this male-centric model by transforming its fee-free Sixty Years galleries, which explore the history of art from the 1960s through the present, into completely female-dominated spaces. The revamped display is set to remain on view for at least a year and will feature around 60 paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings and video works by 30 different artists, including Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread and Mona Hatoum.

Currently, of the 48 works on view in Sixty Years, 32 are by men, 14 are by women and two are by collectives. Gender notwithstanding, highlights include Chris Ofili’s elephant dung-laden 1998 portrait of a mother mourning the murder of her son, Richard Hamilton’s 1992 recreation of a British pop art collage, and Gillian Wearing’s diverse portraits of Britons carrying signs that express sentiments such as “Will Britain get through this recession?” and “I have been certified as mildly insane.”

Sarah Lucas, "Pauline Bunny," 1997 (Tate © Sarah Lucas)

It’s unclear which, if any, of the works by female artists will remain on display in the updated gallery, but Robert Dex of the Evening Standard notes that Tate has already spotlighted several new additions: amongst others, Susan Hiller’s “Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall”—a multimedia installation that recreates a modern living room complete with a droning television in place of a more traditional hearth—and Sarah Lucas’ “Pauline Bunny,” a wiry, bunny-shaped sculpture stuffed with tights and cotton wadding to provide what Tate terms a representation of “abject femininity, in thrall to the arena of male virtuosity.”

Monster Chetwynd, fresh off of her Christmas commission from Tate Britain (she adorned the London gallery’s entrance with two giant leopard slugs), will be featured with two new mixed media works entitled “Crazy Bat Lady” and “Jesus and Barabbas (Odd Man Out 2011).” 2006 Turner prize winner Tomma Abts’ “Zebe,” a 2010 abstract canvas filled with slightly misaligned protrusions and lines, will also go on display.

Tate director Maria Balshaw tells the Guardian’s Brown that she hopes visitors barely even register the change, as the progress made toward highlighting female artists’ contributions has, in recent years, ostensibly made their presence in exhibitions the norm rather than an anomaly.

This process of recognition “has been slow for too long,” Balshaw adds. “We are happy that it is speeding up.”

Tomma Abts, "Zebe," 2010 (Tate © Tomma Abts)

Tate isn’t the only British museum set to launch female-led exhibitions in the near future: In a separate Evening Standard article, Robert Dex writes that the National Portrait Gallery’s upcoming Pre-Raphaelite Sisters show will honor the women who worked as models, gallery assistants and artists alongside better-known male Pre-Raphaelites like Sir John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And in 2020, Martin Bailey and Hannah McGivern report for the Art Newspaper, London’s National Gallery will host a major exhibition dedicated to Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, whose early 17th-century self-portrait made headlines this summer after selling to the gallery for £3.6 million, or roughly $4.7 million USD.

As Katy Hessel, a curator and writer who runs the popular Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists, commented in a recent interview with Sleek magazine’s Emily May, Tate’s display is a significant move. As she puts it, “­­Anyone from any background, of any age, will be able to walk into the free galleries and learn that women were also major contributors to art history, and that they mattered.”

James Smithson and “The Duchess”: The Sotheby’s Sale of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe’s Property

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Heather Ewing, Research Associate; author of "The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian"

Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe at age 19, wearing her Cartier engagement ring (part of the sale). Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s.Today and Thursday in London, Sotheby's is holding an auction of exceptional "property and precious objects" from the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, who died last year at the age of 99. In an effort to channel Downton Abbey, Sotheby's is calling the auction "The Duchess." Cue the lavish promo video with soundtrack and the requisite trawl through a dusty attic filled with vintage monogrammed trunks.

Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe had an incredibly colorful life, brought up in splendor at the ancestral home of Crewe Hall in Cheshire and Crewe House in Mayfair, one of the last great London mansions, today the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. Her father was the first and only Marquess of Crewe, her mother was a Rothschild, and she was named after her godmother, Queen Mary. She was married in Westminster Abbey in 1935 to the 9th Duke of Roxburghe, and was back two years later at the coronation of King George VI to hold the new queen's train (the robes and ermine-trimmed coronet that she wore are part of the auction). She famously endured a six-week siege in 1953 at Floors Castle, her husband's 100-room Scottish seat, after he served her divorce papers on a silver breakfast tray; she barricaded herself in a wing of the house, and he cut off heat, electricity, telephone, and gas in an effort to oust her. He tried also to turn off the water, but a canny and sympathetic neighbor, the future Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who eventually helped broker a resolution, advised her to alert the insurance company to the fire threat. A divorce was granted later that year, and she spent much of the rest of her life in a stately apartment overlooking Hyde Park in London and at West Horsley Place, her mother’s family’s 16th-century brick mansion on 400 acres in Surrey. She never remarried, and she had no children.

One of the livery uniform tailcoats, with epaulettes with silver-thread royal motto and coat of arms, standing watch over an immense dinner service. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s.After her death last year, her 80-year-old nephew Bamber Gascoigne - the original quizmaster for the BBC TV show University Challenge - unexpectedly discovered that he had inherited West Horsley Place, a place he had fond memories of visiting, but where he had never even seen the upstairs. The mansion, which is in a state of advanced decay, is full of centuries of family history. As Sotheby's says, these belongings represent a "portrait of an England that no longer exists but was preserved, untouched for almost half a century." That is an understatement. In nearly 700 lots, there is just a staggering range of objects from a vanished aristocratic world: 19th-century livery uniforms, Qing Dynasty vases, Art Deco jeweled and enameled gold cigarette cases, tortoise shell lorgnettes, a massive silver-gilt toilet service from 1934-1935 engraved with her initials MR under a Duchess' coronet, and so on. There is also a portrait of Carl Linnaeus smoking a pipe, and a set of 39 stereoview photographs of Native Americans and landscapes of the American West by T. H. O'Sullivan and W. H. Jackson, given to the Hon. Robert Crewe-Milnes (later 1st Marquess of Crewe) in 1875 by General William Tecumseh Sherman. To save the property and deal with the death duties, Gascoigne is putting many of the house's treasures up for sale. And the house keeps yielding surprises; a study for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting Flaming June was discovered hanging behind a door in the Duchess' bedroom.

So, why write about this on a Smithsonian blog? Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe was one of the last of the Hungerfords, the family that James Smithson was so proud to claim - that which enabled him to boast that he was "related to kings." Her great-grandmother, Henrietta Maria Anne Hungerford, was Smithson's first cousin (Henrietta was the daughter of Smithson’s mother's sister, Henrietta Maria Keate).

'JamesI was fortunate to correspond with the Duchess back in 2003, when I was working on my biography of James Smithson. She shared with me a copy of a letter responding to one that Smithson had written to the family from Paris in the summer of 1820, after the death of his cousin Henrietta Maria, apparently trying to claim something of her estate. As I worked to reconstruct Smithson's social and scientific networks - after all his papers were lost in the Smithsonian fire of 1865 - this was one more very welcome clue to the importance that Smithson placed on his ancestry, and the tremendous efforts that he made to ensure that he received what he felt was due to him.

This letter and other Hungerford papers were promised to the Cheshire Record Office. They have not yet been deposited there, but I hope that Mr. Gascoigne, whenever he comes across Hungerford-related material, will follow through on the gift. It will be exciting to learn if there is other Smithson-related correspondence among the papers.

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Wearing Your Art On Your Sleeve

Smithsonian Magazine

Art to wear occupies a unique place in the creative universe. Straddling fashion, craft and art, this hybrid classification has historically sought to elevate dress above its practical role. From the 1890s Pre-Raphaelites to 1930s Surrealist metalsmiths to today’s eco-designers, such crafters acknowledge that the clothes we wear represent ideas and opinions.

Often connected to the precepts of Surrealism or Dada, these artists began to experiment with the shapes, patterns and materials of jewelry and clothing. In fact, surrealism as a movement gained popular esteem from its forays into fashion.

At the apex of this melding of avant-garde art and haute couture, a lauded Italian designer named Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with such Surrealist luminaries as Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí. With Dali, Schiaparelli created one of her most striking garments: the Lobster dress, a cream-colored silk organza gown accented with synthetic horsehair created by Schiarparelli, which Dali then ornamented with a large, parsley-speckled lobster.

Also called the crafts-to-wear movement, and including fiber art, leather crafts, jewelry of all materials, and anything imaginable to adorn the self, the wearable art movement did not identify itself as such until the 1960s. However, many recognize modernist artists and jewelers creating between 1920 and 1950 are among the earliest crafts-to-wear producers.

This week the works of 50 artists selling everything from jewelry, clothing, scarves and handbags go on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Craft2Wear fundraising event at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Proceeds from the show, produced by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, support grants and endowments for research at the Institution.

Three artists, Starr Hagenbring, Susan Sanders, and Kathleen Nowak Tucci, working in a variety of physical materials and with decades of experiences in design, will be among those offering items for sale at the event. Their art has appeared across the globe—from a cover of Vogue Italia to Margaret Thatcher’s lapel on broadcast television.

Uniting these three artists and the Crafts2Wear show is an abiding interest in combining high and low art and materials, in keeping with the disruptive mission of the environmentally conscious Wearable Art Movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Hagenbring transforms widely reviled bugs into complex, iridescent tapestries, turning “the ugly into beautiful.” Tucci delights in creating “something of exceptional value out of something that would have ended up in our landfills.” And Sanders, elaborating on the juxtaposition between high and low materials, works in an ultra-tech platform—3D printing—with inexpensive industrial materials, encountering art where it might not be expected.

Starr Hagenbring: The Beauty of Bugs

The New York-based Hagenbring continues the painted fiber-art tradition of Dali and Schiaparelli, using fabric as a canvas, interweaving colored threads and applying bright and opalescent paints to create striking tableaux. Her craft, which can be seen and bought in her New Orleans shop Art & Eyes, takes on numerous subjects: classical and exotic silhouettes, abstract designs, and most recently, realistic and abstract insects.

Her creativity stems from a desire to overcome personal aversions.

As a child, spiders panicked her until she challenged herself to deeply engage in their world. She found their intricate beauty. And the experience spurred a lifelong fascination.

About 25 years ago, while visiting Burma, Hagenbring encountered a carport wall, covered almost entirely with insects of multiple types and sizes. It was as she recalls, “a Smithsonian Institution display of bugs.” Too surprised to be disgusted, she instead examined the “display” and discovered a diversity of size, wing shapes, geometric patterning, hidden cantilevers, and overall beauty. Now, these creature’s multiplicity and strength infuses much of her wearable art.

Insects have inspired the creation of art objects for centuries, from traditional African masks to Picasso’s Cubist paintings, a heritage Hagenbring acknowledges. By focusing on their unexpected beauty and not shying away from large and realistic-looking details, Hagenbring says she has overcome the “ew factor” many people associate with bugs. Her goal is to entice people to find the unexpected loveliness and informs a broader desire to encourage people to, as she says emphatically: “Stop, stop, stop. Look what we’ve got around us.”

Kathleen Nowak Tucci: Ecological Aesthetics

In the 1960s and 1970s, the newly named Wearable Art Movement also embraced environmental awareness as part of its mission, emphasizing the textures and qualities of natural, sustainable materials. Members of the nascent community fused aesthetics with function, seeking to disrupt the traditional rankings or hierarchies within artistic communities that elevate “fine” art above usable crafts. An emphasis on textile work—previously dismissed from the legion of high artists as “women’s work”—dovetailed with the growing women’s liberation movement.

Similarly imbued with political currency, Kathleen Nowak Tucci’s recent work connects with mounting global concerns over ecological destruction, waste and pollution, and extends the traditional wearable artists’ interest in “low” or outré materials to discarded bicycle inner tubes, jettisoned steel brake cables and used Nespresso coffee capsules. Her recycled jewelry began with inner tubes “liberated” from the dust bins of bicycle repair shops.

While struck by the amount of human waste she encounters, gleaning castoffs from bicycle and Harley-Davidson motorcycle shops in Pensacola, Florida, Tucci was initially attracted to working with rubber because the "materials are so fabulous.” The malleable properties of rubber, and the protective qualities of steel create an edgy look reminiscent of medieval chain mail—but much more wearable.

In 2010, Vogue Italia featured Tucci’s jewelry on the cover of an issue reporting on the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf. As someone witnessing the greasy pools smearing the water, Tucci was grateful to be able to materialize a message of resilience and the hope of resurrection through her reclaimed adornments. Not long after that, Tucci spied a box of candy-colored Nespresso capsules in her graphic designer’s office, and began to supplement the matte black of inner tubes with the sparkling jewel tones of anodized aluminum rescued from office trash cans. Eventually, she realized the Nespresso capsules held their own and created standalone fiercely bright pieces. In May 2015, Tucci won the Saul Bell Design Award in Alternative Materials, a category including any material not a precious metal. Next up for the eco-designer? Tucci would love to see a recycled statement piece walk the Hollywood red carpet at a major event (Maggie Gyllenhaal or Tilda Swinton could carry that off beautifully).

Susan Sanders: 3D Printing Her Captivating Handiwork

In the 1980s, wearable art reflected the pop aesthetics and artificial materials popular at the time. Graphic styles and flat appliqué work emphasized surface imagery. Into the 21st century, art-to-wear creators have continued to experiment with techniques and materials, including most recently, 3D printing. Washington, D.C.-native Susan Sanders began her foray into the medium a few years ago after spending years honing her aesthetic on manifold materials, including silver, gold, silk, microfiber, and stone. Her work has appeared in galleries across the world and been sold to a broad spectrum of clients.

Years ago, when Sanders was crafting large, fully articulated bug brooches out of precious metals, she produced a particularly large and striking mosquito. Not long after the museum store at the Whitney in New York sold the creation, United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appeared on television wearing it. The pin also appears in Albright’s book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, and as part of a touring exhibition, which arrived at the Smithsonian Institution in 2010.

Sanders has used so many disparate materials throughout her 42-year career—during all which she has worked in Alexandria, Virginia’s Torpedo Factory—because she likes to freshen up her artistic perception periodically. So, when she first saw 3D-printed jewelry a few years ago, her interest was piqued. After a community-college software course, a weekend workshop, countless YouTube instructional videos, and even more guesses and experiments, Sanders began to produce her own 3D printed jewelry, at first in matte black, and then hand-painted in brilliant hues enhancing the many interlocking angles of her captivating handiwork. Sanders, who has a degree in industrial design from Carnegie-Mellon, says her “taste leans toward geometric forms” and the abstract process of formulating her designs feels like she’s “come home.”

Her 3D designs are all created in one piece but often have many moving parts: invisible joints, hinges and curiously caged balls. The lightweight nylon plastic used in the printing process makes it possible for Sanders to create larger pieces that are still very wearable—and affordable. The comparatively low cost of the process enables her to reach a broader buying audience, a nice change from working with precious metals.

All three women agree that the costumers who wear their products must be self-possessed, must be willing to be seen. Dress, whether sweatpants or a brilliantly illustrated beetle-covered coat, is performative. What we wear is the ever-fascinating link between our private selves and the public’s perception. This year’s artists at Craft2Wear offer myriad ways to bridge that gap with humor, flair and individuality.

The 2015 Smithsonian Craft2Wear show will take place Oct. 1 to 3 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The show opens Thursday, Oct. 1 with the Advance Chance Party & Fashion Show from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $75 and must be purchased in advance. Daily admission for Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. is $10 (cash only), payable at the door. On Oct. 2, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. is Artful Happy Hour (5:30 to 8 p.m.) will give shoppers a chance to toast the artists’ skill and celebrate the Smithsonian Women’s Committee’s long-standing support of science and the arts. Raffle tickets for a pair of black pearl mica pod earrings donated by artist Keith Lewis and a peacock mesh handbag donated by craft artists Bozenna and Lukasz Bogucki may be purchased for $5 each or five for $20 each day of the show.

A Painter of Angels Became the Father of Camouflage

Smithsonian Magazine

Down the full distance of my memory, a dauntingly stout box stood on its end in the barn of our Victorian house in Dublin, New Hampshire. In my morbid youthful imagination, maybe it was a child’s casket, maybe there was a skeleton inside. My father airily dismissed the contents: just the printing plates for the illustrations in a 1909 book, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, the brainchild of Abbott Handerson.

Thayer, a major turn-of-the-century painter who died in 1921. He was a mentor to my artist father (whose name I bear) and a family icon. He was the reason my father stayed in Dublin: to be near the man he revered.

I was recently visited in Dublin by Susan Hobbs, an art historian researching Thayer. This was the moment to open the box—which now felt to me like an Egyptian sarcophagus, filled with unimagined treasures. And indeed it was! The plates for the book were there—and with them, cutouts of blossoms and butterflies, birds and bushes—lovely vignettes to show how coloration can conceal objects by merging them with their backgrounds. Everything was wrapped in a 1937 Sunday Boston Globe and New York Herald Tribune.

Also, I held in my hands a startling artifact of military history. Green and brown underbrush was painted on a series of horizontal wooden panels. A string of paper-doll soldiers dappled green and brown could be superimposed on the landscapes to demonstrate how camouflage-design uniforms would blend into the backgrounds. Cutouts and stencils in the shape of soldiers, some hanging from strings, could be placed on the panels as well, to demonstrate degrees of concealment. Here was Abbott Thayer, the father of camouflage.

Nowadays camouflage togs are worn as fashion statements by trendy clotheshorses, and as announcements of machismo by both men and women. The “camo” pattern is the warrior wardrobe for rebels and rogues of all stripes, and hunters of the birds and animals Thayer studied to the point of near worship. Catalogues and stylish boutiques are devoted to camouflage chic. There are camo duffels, camo vests, even camo bikinis.

This evolution is heavily ironic. A strange and astonishing man, Thayer had consecrated his life to painting “pictures of the highest human soul beauty.” He was one of a small group who returned from Paris art schools in the late 1800s with a new vision of American art. They were painters of atmosphere, apostles of timeless beauty, often embodied by depictions of idealized young women. Distinct from the storytelling pre-Raphaelites, the American Impressionists and such muscular Realists as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, the group included Thomas Dewing, Dwight Tryon, George de Forest Brush, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and James McNeill Whistler, who remained abroad. Deemed a “rare genius” by the railroad car magnate Charles Lang Freer, his patron and mentor, Thayer in that era was considered one of the finest figure painters in America.

Thayer’s second obsession was nature. An Emersonian transcendentalist, he found in nature an unsullied form of the purity, the spiritual truth and the beauty he sought in his painting. This combination of art and naturalism led him to his then-radical theory of concealing coloration—how animals hide from their predators, and prey. The foundation of military camouflage, it would have been formulated without Thayer and his particular contributions. Types of camouflage had long existed. Brush was used to conceal the marching soldiers in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the headdresses and war paint worn by African warriors, to cite Thayer’s own example, served to disrupt their silhouettes. But it was Thayer who, in the early 1890s, began creating a wholly formed doctrine of concealing coloration, worked out through observation and experiment.

The theory emerged from the total mingling of his art and his nature studies. Thayer once explained to William James, Jr.—son of the famed philosopher and a devoted disciple of Thayer’s—that concealing coloration was his “second child.” This child, said Thayer, “has hold of one of my hands and my painting has hold of the other. When little C.C. hangs back, I can not go forward....He is my color-study. In birds’ costumes I am doing all my perceiving about the color I now get into my canvases.”

Thayer believed that only an artist could have originated this theory. “The whole basis of picture making,” he said, “consists in contrasting against its background every object in the picture.” He also was a preeminent technician in paint, the acknowledged American master of the color theories developed in Munich and Paris—theories of hue and chroma, of color values and intensities, of how colors enhance or cancel one another when juxtaposed.

Thayer based his concept on his perceptions of the ways in which nature “obliterates” contrast. One is by blending. The colorations of birds, mammals, insects and reptiles, he said, mimic the creatures’ environments. The second is by disruption. Strong arbitrary patterns of color flatten contours and break up outlines, so denizens either disappear or look to be something other than what they are.

Contours are further confused, Thayer maintained, by the flattening effect of what he termed “countershading”: the upper areas of animals tend to be darker than their shadowed undersides. Thus the overall tone is equalized. “Animals are painted by Nature darkest on those parts which tend to be most lighted by the sky’s light, and vice versa,” wrote Thayer. “The result is that their gradation of light-and-shade, by which opaque solid objects manifest themselves to the eye, is effaced at every point, and the spectator seems to see right through the space really occupied by an opaque animal.”

To demonstrate the effects of countershading, he made small painted birds. One rainy day in 1896 he led Frank Chapman, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to a construction site. At a distance of 20 feet, he asked how many model birds Chapman saw in the mud. “Two,” Chapman said. They advanced closer. Still two. Standing practically on top of the models, Chapman discovered four. The first two were entirely earth brown. The “invisible” two were countershaded, with their upper halves painted brown and their lower halves painted pure white.

Thayer held demonstrations of his theory throughout the East. But while many prominent zoologists were receptive to his ideas, numerous other scientists acrimoniously attacked him. They argued correctly that conspicuous coloring was also designed to warn off a predator or attract a perspective mate. In particular, they resented Thayer’s insistence that his theory be accepted all or nothing—like Holy Scripture.

His most famous detractor was big-game-hunting Teddy Roosevelt, who publicly scoffed at Thayer’s thesis that the blue jay is colored so as to disappear against the blue shadows of winter snows. What about summer? Roosevelt asked. From his own experience, he knew that zebras and giraffes were clearly visible in the veld from miles away. “If you...sincerely desire to get at the truth,” wrote Roosevelt in a letter, “you would realize that your position is literally nonsensical.” Thayer’s law of obliterative countershading did not recieve official acceptance until 1940, when a prominent British naturalist, Hugh B. Cott, published Adaptive Coloration in Animals.

Although concealing coloration, countershading and camouflage are now axiomatically understood, at the end of the 19th century it probably took an eccentric fanatic like Thayer—a freethinker antagonistic to all conventions, a man eminent in a separate field—to break with the rigid mind-set of the naturalist establishment.

Born in 1849, Thayer grew up in Keene, New Hampshire. At age 6, the future artist was already “bird crazy,” as he put it—already collecting skins. Attending a prep school in Boston, he studied with an animal painter and had begun selling paintings of birds and animals when at 19 he arrived at the National Academy of Design in New York.

There Thayer met his feminine ideal, an innocent soul—poetic, graceful, fond of philosophic reading and discussion. Her name was Kate Bloede. They were married in 1875, and at age 26, Thayer put aside his naturalist self and sailed for Paris to begin four years of study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme, a great master of composition and the human figure.

When they returned to America, Thayer supported his family by doing commissioned portraits. By 1886 he and Kate had three children, Mary, Gladys and Gerald. Brilliant, isolated, ascetic, hyperintense, an almost pure example of late-19th-century romantic idealism, Thayer epitomized the popular image of a genius. His mind would race at full throttle in a rush of philosophies and certainties. His joy was exploring the imponderables of life, and he scrawled passionate, barely readable letters, his second thoughts routinely continued in a series of postscripts.

Impractical, erratic, improvident, Thayer described himself as “a jumper from extreme to extreme.” He confessed to his father that his brain only “takes care of itself for my main function, painting.” Later he would compose letters to Freer in his head and then be surprised that his patron had not actually received them. Though Thayer earned a fortune, selling paintings for as much as $10,000, an enormous sum in those days, money was often a problem. With wheedling charm he would pester Freer for loans and advance payments.

Thayer cut a singular figure. A smallish man, 5 feet 7 inches tall, lean and muscular, he moved with a quick vitality. His narrow, bony face, with its mustache and aquiline nose, was topped by a broad forehead permanently furrowed by frown lines from concentration. He began the winter in long woolen underwear, and as the weather warmed, he gradually cut off the legs till by summer he had shorts. Winter and summer he wore knickers, knee-high leather boots and a paint-splotched Norfolk jacket.

After moving the family from place to place, in 1901 Thayer settled permanently, 13 miles from Keene, in Dublin, New Hampshire, just below the great granite bowl of Mount Monadnock. His Thoreauesque communion with nature permeated the entire household. Wild animals—owls, rabbits, woodchucks, weasels—roamed the house at will. There were pet prairie dogs named Napoleon and Josephine, a red, blue and yellow macaw, and spider monkeys that regularly escaped from their cages. In the living room stood a stuffed peacock, probably used as a model for a painting (opposite) in the protective coloration book. A stuffed downy woodpecker, which in certain lights disappeared into its artfully arranged background of black winter twigs and branches, held court in the little library.

Promoting to ornithologists his theory of protective coloration, Thayer met a young man who immediately was adopted as an honorary son. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and though he would become a famous painter of birds, he began as an affectionate disciple.

Both men were fascinated with birds. They regularly exchanged skins and Fuertes joined Thayer on birding expeditions. He spent a summer and two winters with the family, joining in their high intellectual and spiritual arguments—the exact interpretation of the Icelandic Sagas—and their rushes to the dictionary or relief globe to settle questions of etymology and geography. On regular walks in the woods, Fuertes summoned birds by whistling their calls—like Thayer, who stood on the summit of Mount Monadnock in the twilight and attracted great horned owls by making a sucking sound on the back of his hand. One owl, it is said, perched on top of his bald head.

Fuertes also served as a tutor to Gerald. Thayer’s children were not sent to school. He needed their daily companionship, he said, and feared the germs they might pick up. He thought the purity of their youth would be corrupted by a confining, formal education. The children were well taught at home, not the least by Thayer’s lofty environment of music and books. Mary grew up to be an expert linguist. Gladys became a gifted painter and a fine writer. Gerald, also an artist, was to be the author of record of Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.

The Dublin house had been given to the Thayer family by Mary Amory Greene. A direct descendent of the painter John Singleton Copley, Greene had been one of Thayer’s students. She made herself Thayer’s helper, handling correspondence, collecting fees—and writing substantial checks. She was one of several genteel, affluent, single females delighted to dedicate themselves to the artist. He once explained, “A creative genius uses all his companions...passing to each some rope or something to handle at his fire, i.e. his painting or his poem.”

Another savior was Miss Emmeline “Emma” Beach. A tiny sprite of a woman with reddish-gold hair, she was gentle, understanding, selfless, but also efficient, effectual, and moneyed. Her father owned the New York Sun. Kate was as disorganized as her husband, so both embraced Emma’s friendship. She cheerfully became the Thayer family factotum, struggling to bring order to the chaos.

In 1888 Kate’s mind folded into melancholia and she entered a sanatorium. Alone with the three children, blaming himself for causing Kate’s “dark state,” Thayer turned more and more to Emma. He wrote her wooing, confiding letters, calling her his “Dear fairy godmother” and imploring her to come for extended visits. When Kate died of a lung infection in 1891 in the sanatorium, Thayer proposed to Emma by mail, including the plea that Kate had wished her to care for the children. They were married four months after Kate’s death, and it was with Emma that Thayer settled year-round in Dublin. Now it fell to her to keep the fragile artist glued together.

This was a considerable challenge. His life was blighted by what he called “the Abbott pendulum.” There were highs of blissful “all-wellity” when he reveled in “such tranquility, such purity of nature and such dreams of painting.” At these times he was his essential self—a man of ingratiating charm and grace and generosity. But then depressions set in. “My sight turns inward,” he wrote, “and I have such a state of sick disgust at myself....”

He suffered from “oceans of hypochondria,” which he blamed on his mother, and from an “irritability” he claimed to inherit from his father. Harassed by sleeplessness, exhaustion and anxiety, by petty illnesses, bad eyes and headaches, he kept his state of health, excellent or terrible, constantly in the foreground.

He was convinced that fresh mountain air was the best medicine for everyone, and the entire family slept under bearskin rugs in outdoor lean-tos—even in 30-below weather. In the main house, windows were kept open winter and summer. The place had never been winterized, and what heat there was came from fireplaces and small wood-burning stoves. Illumination was provided by kerosene lamps and candles. Until a water tower fed by a windmill was built, the only plumbing was a hand pump in the kitchen. A privy stood behind the house. But there was always the luxury of a cook and house maids, one of whom, Bessie Price, Thayer used as a model.

In 1887 Thayer found the leitmotif for his most important painting. Defining art as “a no-man’s land of immortal beauty where every step leads to God,” the forefather of today’s raucous camouflage painted his 11-year-old daughter Mary as the personification of virginal, spiritual beauty, giving her a pair of wings and calling the canvas Angel. This was the first in a gallery of chaste, lovely young women, usually winged, but human nevertheless. Although Thayer sometimes added halos, these were not paintings of angels. The wings, he said, were only there to create “an exalted atmosphere”—to make the maidens timeless.

For Thayer, formal religion smacked of “hypocrisy and narrowness.” His God was pantheistic. Mount Monadnock, his field station for nature studies, was “a natural cloister.” He painted more than a dozen versions of it, all with a sense of looming mystery and “wild grandeur.”

Believing that his paintings were the “dictation of a higher power,” he tended to paint in bursts of “God given” creative energy. His personal standards were impossibly high. Driven by his admitted vice of “doing them better and better,” he was doomed always to fall short. Finishing a picture became horrendously hard. He was even known to go to the railroad station at night, uncrate a painting destined for a client and work on it by lantern light.

Such fussing sometimes ruined months or even years of work. In the early 1900s he began preserving “any achieved beauty” by retaining young art students—including my father—to make copies of his effects. Two, three and four versions of a work might be under way. Thayer compulsively experimented on all of them, finally assembling the virtues of each onto one canvas.

Though well aware of his quirks and weaknesses, young painters like my father and Fuertes revered Thayer almost as a flawed god. William James, Jr., described standing in Thayer’s studio before the winged Stevenson Memorial. “I felt myself to be, somehow, ‘in the presence.’ Here was an activity, an accomplishment, which my own world...had never touched. This could be done—was being done that very morning by this friendly little man with the distant gaze. This was his world where he lived and moved, and it seemed to me perhaps the best world I had ever met.”

The inspirational spell cast by Thayer also was experienced by a noted artist named William L. Lathrop. In 1906 Lathrop visited a show at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He wrote: “A big portrait by Sargent. Two portrait heads by Abbott Thayer. The Sargent is a wonderfully brilliant performance. But one finds a greater earnestness in the Thayers. That his heart ached with love for the thing as he painted, and your own heart straight away aches with love for the lover. You know that he strove and felt himself to have failed and you love him the more for the failure.”

While “the boys” copied the morning’s work, Thayer spent afternoons finding in nature a relief from his fervid preoccupations. He climbed Mount Monadnock, canoed and fly-fished on nearby Dublin Pond. To him each bird and animal was exquisite. He and his son, Gerald, collected bird skins in the Eastern United States, and as far afield as Norway, Trinidad and South America. By 1905 they had amassed a trove of 1,500 skins. Using a needle, Thayer would lift each feather into its proper position with infinite delicacy. “I gloat and gloat,” he once wrote. “What design!”

World War I devastated the 19th-century spirit of optimism that helped sustain Thayer’s idealism. The possibility of a German victory drew Thayer out of seclusion and spurred him to promote the application of his theories of protective coloration to military camouflage. The French made use of his book in their efforts, adapting his theories to the painting of trains, railroad stations, and even horses, with “disruptive” patterns. The word “camouflage” probably comes from the French camouflet, the term for a small exploding mine that throws up gas and smoke to conceal troop movement. The Germans, too, studied Thayer’s book to help them develop techniques for concealing their warships.

When the British were less enthusiastic, Thayer’s obsessiveness went into overdrive. He virtually stopped painting and began an extended campaign to persuade Britain to adopt his ideas, both on land and sea. In 1915 he enlisted the help of the great expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent, whose fame enabled him to arrange a meeting at the British War Office for Thayer. Traveling alone to England, Thayer failed to go to the War Office. Instead he toured Britain in a state of nervous overexcitement, giving camouflage demonstrations to friendly naturalists in Liverpool and Edinburgh in the hopes of mobilizing their support. This detour, it turns out, was largely a ploy to postpone what was always for him a paralyzing fear: facing an unsympathetic audience.

Finally Thayer arrived in London for the appointment. He was exhausted, confused and erratic. At one point, he found himself walking a London street with tears streaming down his face. Immediately he boarded the next ship for America, leaving behind at his hotel a package that Sargent took to the War Office.

I always loved hearing my father tell what happened then. In the presence of the busy, skeptical generals, Sargent opened the package. Out fell Thayer’s paint-daubed Norfolk jacket. Pinned across it were scraps of fabric and several of Emma’s stockings. To Thayer, it told the entire story of disruptive patterning. To the elegant Sargent, it was an obscenity—“a bundle of rags!” he fumed to William James, Jr. “I wouldn’t have touched it with my stick!”

Later Thayer received word that his trip had born some sort of fruit: “Our British soldiers are protected by coats of motley hue and stripes of paint as you suggested,” wrote the wife of the British ambassador to the United States. Thayer continued battling to make the British Navy camouflage its ships. In 1916, overstressed and unstrung, he broke down, and in Emma’s words was “sent away from home for a rest.”

The United States entered the war in April 1917, and when a number of artists proposed their own ways to camouflage U.S. warships, Thayer refocused his frenzy. He sent a copy of the concealing coloration book to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and bombarded him with passionate letters decrying the wrongheaded perversion of his ideas by others. “It will be disastrous if, after all, they dabble in my discoveries,” he wrote. “I beg you, be wise enough as to try accurately, mine, first.”

White, he contended, was the best concealing color for blending with the horizon sky. Dark superstructures, like smokestacks, could be hidden by white canvas screens or a bright wire net. White would be the invisible color at night. One proof, he insisted, was the white iceburg struck by the Titanic. Although some credence would later be given to this theory in a 1963 Navy manual on ship camouflage, Thayer’s ideas in this regard were primarily inspirational rather than practical.

His theories had a more direct effect on Allied uniforms and matériel. A Camouflage Corps was assembled—an unmilitary lot led by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ son, Homer. It was for his edification that Thayer had prepared the camouflage demonstration panels that I discovered in Dublin. By 1918 this motley corps contained 285 soldiers—carpenters, iron workers, sign painters. Its 16 officers included sculptors, scenery designers, architects and artists. One was my father, a second lieutenant.

In France a factory applied disruptive, variegated designs to American trucks, sniper suits and observation posts, thereby, as an Army report explained, “destroying identity by breaking up the form of the object.” “Dazzle” camouflage used pieces of material knotted to wire netting, casting shadows that broke up the shapes beneath.

During 1918, Thayer’s frustration over ship camouflage and terror over the war reached a continual, low-grade hysteria. It was too much even for Emma. That winter she fled to her sister in Peekskill, New York. Thayer took refuge in a hotel in Boston, then took himself to a sanatorium. From there he wrote Emma, “I lacked you to jeer me out of suicide and I got into a panic.”

In early 1919 they were together again. But by March, Emma needed another rest in Peekskill, and again during the winter of 1920-21. Despite her absences, Thayer settled down, cared for by his daughter Gladys and his devoted assistants. Late that winter he began a picture that combined his two most cherished themes: an “angel” posed open-armed in front of Mount Monadnock (left). In May he had a series of strokes. The last one, on May 29, 1921, killed him. On hearing of Thayer’s death, John Singer Sargent said, “Too bad he’s gone. He was the best of them.”

The Thayer cosmos disintegrated, drifting away into indifference and neglect. There was a memorial exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art within a year, but for decades many of his finest works remained unseen, stored in the vaults of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, which is prohibited from lending paintings for outside exhibitions. In the post-Armory Show era the changing fashions of the art world regarded Thayer’s angels as sentimental relics of a defunct taste.

Emma died in 1924. For a time the little Dublin complex stood empty, decaying year after year. When I was 9, my brother and I climbed up on the roof of Gerald’s house, near Thayer’s studio, and entered the attic through an open hatch. In one corner, heaped up like a hay mow, was a pile of Gerald’s bird skins. I touched it. Whrrrr! A raging cloud of moths. The horror was indelible. Thayer’s own prized collection of skins was packed in trunks and stored in an old mill house on the adjacent property. Ultimately, the birds deteriorated and were thrown out. In 1936 Thayer’s house and studio were torn down. Gerald’s house lasted only a year or so longer. The box in our barn was apparently given to my father for safekeeping.

Today, at the end of the 20th century, angels are very much in vogue. Thayer’s Angel appeared on the cover of the December 27, 1993, issue of Time magazine, linked to an article titled “Angels Among Us.” These days angels are appearing in films, on TV, in books and on the Web. Today, too, art historians are looking receptively at the end of the 19th century. A major Thayer exhibition opens on April 23 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. Curated by Richard Murray, the show—which marks the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth—will run through September 6. In addition, the Freer Gallery will mount a small exhibit of Thayer’s winged figures starting June 5.

In 1991, during the Gulf War, I watched Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf hold televised press conferences in full camouflage regalia. Yes, Thayer did finally make his point with the military. But he sacrificed his health—and perhaps even his life—promoting what, in some respects, has now become a pop fad that announces rather than hides. Virtually no one knows that all that raiment is the enduring legacy of a worshiper of virginal purity and spiritual nobility. This probably delights Abbott Thayer.

Freelance writer Richard Meryman’s most recent book is Andrew Wyeth, A Secret Life, published by HarperCollins.

Image by Nelson and Henry C. White Research Material. Archives of American Art, SI. Attired in loose breeches, high boots and paint-splattered Norfolk jacket, Thayer projects the image of the rugged outdoorsman. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. Thayer contended that even brilliantly plumaged birds like the peacock can blend into, and thus be camouflaged by, their habitats. To illustrate his theory, he and his young assistant Richard Meryman painted Peacock in the Woods for Thayer's coloration book. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. The model for Girl Arranging Her Hair, c/1918-1919, was Alma Wollerman, Gerald's wife. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. Thayer artfully rendered the ethereal winged figure of his Stevenson Memorial (1903) in a very human pose. The work was painted as a tribute to author Robert Louis Stevenson. (original image)

Image by Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Massachusetts. One of Theyer's final works Monadnock Angel )1920) united two of his favorite themes-idealized, protective winged women and the natural beauty of Mount Monadnock-in one lyrical canvas. (original image)

Image by Free Gellery of Art, SI. Many of Theyer's works celebrate beauty and purity. A Virgin, painted for his patron Charles Freer in 1893, sets the artist's children (Mary leading Gerald and Gladys), draped in classical robes, against winglike clouds. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. The artist Rockwell Kent, a student of Thayer's, worked with the painter, his wife Emma and son Gerald to create the compelling watercolor illustration Copperhead Snake on Dead Leaves. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. Thayer painted Blue Jays in Winter to demonstrate his claim that the colors of the blue jay's feathers blend with shades of sunlit snow, shadows and branches to help conceal and protect the bird. (original image)