The Soul Painter Who Created Camouflage

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Retro camouflage army background
“Cretan camouflage. If you want to blend into a crowd of drunken Greeks there’s nothing better.” —Adrian Cronauer, “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987)

In A Nutshell

The gap between the British Army’s bright red coats and today’s military camouflage was bridged by an unlikely man—a naturist and painter of angels named Abbott Thayer. Thayer was fascinated by how even the most brightly colored birds blended into their surroundings, and even though he was called a fool by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, he eventually turned to designing military uniforms based on the principles he had observed. Working through the years of World War I, his work ultimately led to the Camouflage Corps and the creation of camouflage as we now know it today.

The Whole Bushel

Given the military uses of camouflage, most people might be surprised to learn that the man whose works first explored how camouflage occurred in nature was described as a “soul painter.”

Abbott Thayer was a French-trained American painter working at the turn of the 20th century. At the time he was painting, he was popular and well-known for a couple of things: his paintings of angels and his paintings of nature.

When he wasn’t painting, he was studying nature. Specifically, he was studying the way the coloring of different animals helped them blend into their surroundings. There was more to it than that, though, and his beliefs earned him the ire of not a few naturists and biologists who did their studying for a living.

Thayer argued that even the most brightly colored animals used their shading and patterns to hide, and he used the peacock as a prime example. There are few other birds as brightly colored and seemingly audacious as the peacock, but in his work “Peacock in the Woods,” he showed just how the peculiar patterns of the peacock’s distinctive tail would help it blend into the leaves. He pioneered the idea of camouflage by disruption and by blending in with a background, showing in his paintings how it all worked.

He did it in real life, too, staging experiments were he would paint small birds to look like those he’d observed in nature, then place them in the appropriate surroundings and challenge his naysayers to find them all.

Thayer had one particularly powerful hater: Teddy Roosevelt. The big game hunter called him out on what he viewed as absolute idiocy, pointing out that with the changing of the seasons, brightly colored birds were clearly not hidden against the snow, and he could see a zebra from miles and miles away.

Even as Thayer was exploring and illustrating all the principles of camouflage and coloration that we take for granted today, his life was full of turbulence. He was constantly in need of money, even though his paintings sold for thousands. His wife sank deeper and deeper into depression, eventually admitted to the sanatorium where she died. Thayer went on to marry a family friend, constantly suffering from intense hypochondria so vivid that he insisted the windows in the house be kept open all the time, even in the below-freezing winters.

Even as he was immortalizing his daughter as the subject of his angelic paintings, World War I was gripping the world. Thayer, who believed in the beauty of the human soul, was suddenly confronted with a not-so-beautiful reality. With the war in full swing, it was Thayer who finally sat down to apply the principles he had learned from years of studying the natural world to the idea of military camouflage.

But when it came time to present his ideas to the governments that needed them the most, Thayer was a mess. After spending much of his adult life secluded from the real world, he found himself heading to London, where he would wander the streets in confused panic before getting on the next ship back to America and leaving his work behind. By the time the US entered the war, his ideas were taken a little more seriously. Eventually, there was the creation of the Camouflage Corps, which employed sculptors, painters, and architects to create camouflage for ships and men.

As the war dragged on, Thayer was met with more and more resistance. Finally run ragged, he retired to Boston, first to a hotel, then a sanatorium. A series of strokes in 1921 led to his death and for a time, he was remembered chiefly for his angels, relics of another era. And although he never heard it, the officers of the Camouflage Corps even acknowledged him as the best they’d ever worked with.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: A Painter of Angels Became the Father of Camouflage
Smithsonian American Art Museum: Abbott Thayer
Cabinet: Hidden Talents: The Camouflage Paintings of Abbot Handerson Thayer