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Head of a Woman

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Head of a Woman

Artist: Abbott H. Thayer (American, 1849 - 1921)

Date: c. 1900
Medium: Graphite on cream-colored, medium-weight wove paper
Overall: 7 1/16 × 6 7/8in. (17.9 × 17.5cm)
Signed: '
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (graphite): "A. H. Thayer"
Credit Line: Bequest of Helen and Jane Meyer, Utica, by exchange
Object number: 92.42
Text Entries

Late in his career, Thayer wrote that the artist painting the female form should convey the “ideal of the woman he would like to marry and worship all his life.”(1) Thayer’s type, as evidenced in his earliest portraits to his late allegorical tableaux, was a calm, dignified creature. While always young and well formed, she was never stylish or overtly sexy; moreover, she seemed absolutely incapable of an unseemly thought or action. One of the most celebrated American painters of his day, Thayer was widely admired for his ability to capture a woman’s likeness and simultaneously endow her with ineffable moral grandeur.(2)

Thayer’s achievement was not attained without struggle. An exceedingly skilled draftsman, he could get a charming and accurate visage on canvas within a few days, but for weeks and even months thereafter he would alter it, always in search of the elusive element of ideality. These revisions would result in numerous effacings and readjustments that would often remain visible on the finished picture’s surface; to those unfamiliar with the artist’s method they might appear as blunders.(3) But for Thayer there was undoubtedly a pleasing earnestness to these markings; they prevented the portrait from becoming slick and the artist from appearing too cavalier in addressing his subject.

The MWPI drawing is a superb example of both Thayer’s idealizing tendency and his unusual technique. The face, though beauteous, is somewhat passive and aloof. The eyes, wide and alert, do not suggest a clear emotion, though the resolutely closed mouth, pinned—up hair, and high-collared blouse bespeak a certain restraint. Interestingly, this vision of propriety is drawn with a nervous though deft hand: the lines about the nose and eyes are heavily worked, and rejected outlines for the hair and collar are clearly visible. Such ambiguities do not detract from the fundamental soundness of the draftsmanship, however; she is structured and shaded with utmost conviction.

Thayer seldom made preparatory drawings for his oil paintings. Most works on paper that survive, including the MWPI sheet, seem to be independent and informal efforts; they often display a meticulousness and ease not found in more ambitious works. The sitter here cannot be named with confidence, though she bears a resemblance to several of Thayer’s dark-haired models. The artist’s refusal to submit strictly to the idiosyncratic facts of a woman’s face when creating his exalted images makes precise identification frequently impossible.


1. Abbott H. Thayer, letter to the editor, Bruno’s Weekly (New York), March 11, 1916, Thayer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., microfilm D202, frame 111.

2. For a discussion of Thayer’s idealization of women see Ross Anderson, Abbot Handerson Thayer (Syracuse, N.Y.: Everson Museum ofArt, 1982), 20-23, 43-45, 60-76.

3. For information on Thayer’s working methods see Anderson, Thayer, 27; based on Thayer to Charles L. Freer, Thayer Papers, microfilm D200, frame 1255; and Thayer to Thomas W. Dewing, frame 1134.


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