Abbott Handerson Thayer was one of the best-known artists in the United States during the 1890s. His art, often inspired by the Italian Renaissance and classical antiquity, fulfilled the aspirations of a country seeking to establish itself on an international stage as the new Rome. With large...
Abbott Handerson Thayer was one of the best-known artists in the United States during the 1890s. His art, often inspired by the Italian Renaissance and classical antiquity, fulfilled the aspirations of a country seeking to establish itself on an international stage as the new Rome. With large public buildings in classical styles, with murals, and with allegorical representations like Caritas, American artists created an image of strength and confidence that came to characterize the American Renaissance. Thayer first studied painting in Boston and Brooklyn, then traveled to Paris in 1875 to train at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He based his career in New York but produced much of his work in the summer studios he kept, first in South Woodstock, Connecticut, and then in Dublin, New Hampshire. The model for the main figure in Caritas was Elise Pumpelly, daughter of a well-known Harvard geologist, who also summered in Dublin and posed frequently for Thayer. The artist idealized her by dressing her in a classical Greek chiton, using its long columnar folds to give the impression of stability and strength. The two children, innocent and trustful, seem embodiments of natural purity. The setting is enlivened by Thayer’s opalescent strokes of paint, flickers of light green and blue that seem to vibrate with the freshness of spring. An intensely spiritual man, Thayer sought to imbue his paintings with the moral principles of his age, hoping to communicate such abstract ideals as virtue, beauty, and truth. In 1893 (along with ElihuVedder [06.2430]and John LaFarge [20.1873]), Thayer had been commissioned to paint a mural for the art museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, an allegorical composition symbolizing the city of Florence. That mural, depicting a winged woman with outstretched arms that protect two children, may have inspired Caritas. The image was a traditional representation of the virtue Charity (caritas in Latin), and the title became associated with this painting when it was first exhibited in Philadelphia in 1895. Thayer later wrote to the MFA asking to change it, explaining that he felt “Spring” or “Morning” would be more appropriate; in 1899 he wrote again, telling the Museum’s director that he detested the picture and asking to trade it for another. Despite the artist’s continued protestations, Caritas was highly admired from the time of its first exhibition and won a large prize in Philadelphia. When it was first shown in Boston in 1897, a group of local painters and collectors raised the funds to buy Caritas for the MFA. They explained that they felt it was of utmost importance that the finest modern works by America’s leading contemporary artists should be represented in the Museum’s collections. Notes 1. Abbott Handerson Thayer to Charles Greeley Loring, December 15, [no year], curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 2. Abbott Handerson Thayer to Charles Greeley Loring, December 13, 1899, curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Lower right: Abbott H. Thayer
1897, sold by the artist to the MFA for $8,000. (Accession Date: April 15, 1897)
Warren Collection—William Wilkins Warren Fund and contributions