The Best of Ask Joan of Art: Thayer's Stevenson Memorial
December 23, 2009
This post marks the inauguration of a new series here on Eye Level: The Best of Ask Joan of Art. Begun in 1993, Ask Joan of Art is the longest running arts-based electronic reference service in the country. Behind Joan's shield and visor you will find Kathleen Adrian or one of her co-workers from the museum’s Research and Scholars Center; these experts answer the public's questions about art. Earlier this year Kathleen began posting questions on Twitter and made the answers to these questions available on our Web site. This ongoing series will represent the best of these questions and answers. Welcome, Joan, to Eye Level!
Question: We bought a print of an angel that is somewhat faded, sitting on a rock. The work has the letters VAEA written on it. Who painted this and what do the letters stand for?
Answer: Based on your description, it sounds like you have a print of the Stevenson Memorial (1903) by Abbott Handerson Thayer. The painting is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The following information about this painting is from Treasures From the National Museum of American Art (Washington, DC.: Published for the National Museum of American Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), p. 210:
"In 1903, after prior attempts to produce a work commemorating the late Robert Louis Stevenson (died 1894), Thayer created the painting Stevenson Memorial. One of Thayer's remarkably down-to-earth angels sits on a large, domed rock, her right knee clasped in her hands, her gaze averted, her mien melancholy, and her posture part mourner, part guardian. While the rock suggests a tomb or grave monument, it also symbolizes the mountain behind Stevenson's Samoan home, upon which slopes the poet is buried. Vaea, the name of the mountain, is inscribed on the rock, and a palm tree stands to the right.
"Thayer had difficulty painting this dark expanse of rock, and he asked a young apprentice, Rockwell Kent, for assistance. Kent ... later recalled his reluctance to alter the painting significantly and his timid sketching in of some new forms. Thayer interrupted him impatiently, took up a 'large stable broom,' and brushed it vigorously over the rock, leaving striations that are clearly visible. Satisfied, Thayer offered the painting to several of his habitual patrons, one of whom, J. J. Albright of Buffalo, bought it. He later sold it to John Gellatly, who soon presented it to the Smithsonian."
Additional information can be found in the museum's gallery label:
"Apart from the title, our only clue to the subject of this work is the inscription 'VAEA,' the name of the mountain in Samoa where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried. Stevenson's poetic tales of men at war with themselves had dazzled Abbott Handerson Thayer, whose own life was marked by exaltation and despair. And, like the Scotsman's most memorable characters, the Stevenson Memorial carries a hidden story.
"Underneath this image is an earlier composition, a portrait of Thayer's three children that he had painted as a tribute to Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. But Thayer painted over this with the figure of an angel to convey a more encompassing, personal grief. The artist's wife had died in 1891, and his many paintings of angels created thereafter suggest the mysteries of life, death, and the fate of the spirit.
"The luminous angel shown seated at Stevenson's tomb is an emblem of memory, a light against oblivion. Just as Thayer's love for his wife survived in the image of their children, Stevenson's fame would live on in his works."
For more information about the artist and his work, you can track the following books through your local public or university library. If you can't find these titles, ask a librarian if they can be ordered for you through interlibrary loan:
Ross Anderson, Abbott Handerson Thayer (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum, 1982).
James Kettlewell, Transcendent Universe: The Paintings of Abbott Handerson Thayer (Glens Falls, NY: The Hyde Collection, 1996).
Nelson C. White, Abbott H. Thayer, Painter and Naturalist (Hartford: Connecticut Printers, 1951).
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