Biography 1904-2006

From the charcoal-covered girl recalled by her first teacher to the luminous woman whose inner sight took the place of most of her physical vision, Polly Thayer (Starr) sought tirelessly to understand the nature and effects of seeing. An artist who honed her craft over eight decades, Polly Thayer (Starr)’s approach was to look deeply at her subject to see what the form would reveal of what was underneath.

I find there are secrets, certain numinous things, that speak to me in a special sense, signaling in a language that compels decoding.

Polly Thayer Starr

The Early Years

Named Ethel Randolph Thayer after her mother, though always called Polly, she was born in 1904 to a family that had encouraged forthright communications for generations (Ralph Waldo Emerson was among her forbears). She learned early to think about what she wanted and how it would affect those around her. Her father, Ezra Ripley Thayer, a Boston lawyer who became Dean of Harvard Law School, was the son of Harvard legal scholar James Bradley Thayer; her brother Jim would eventually become an authority on Roman Law; her sister Eleanor was outgoing and empathic; and her mother loved art and theater and all manner of animals. The dining room table of her childhood was a lively debating ground.

Winters spent in a Boston townhouse alternated with summers at Weir River Farm in Hingham, Massachusetts, where Polly took boundless delight in the goings-on of the farm creatures and the offerings of nature. Noticing Polly’s fascination with students copying casts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Mrs. Thayer arranged for her daughter to take drawing lessons from Beatrice Van Ness, a student of Benson, Tarbell and Hale, several times a week after classes at Miss Winsor’s School. Polly threw herself into the activity with such enthusiasm that Van Ness exclaimed that she could barely tell the child from the charcoal.

The idyll ceased abruptly with the death of Thayer’s father when she was eleven. The loss was overwhelming, and Polly struggled to help maintain her mother’s equilibrium as well as her own. She felt isolated and uncomfortable at school in Boston, and in 1919 she enrolled at the Westover School in Connecticut, where she soon found herself surrounded by “a rich variety of friendly companions,” nourished by a curriculum which encouraged poetry and the arts, and growing steadily in confidence and inquisitiveness.

The year after graduation, Thayer’s mother took her and her brother Jim on a trip to the Orient. While they were in Korea, Thayer’s sister died, followed quickly thereafter by being caught up in an earthquake which leveled Tokyo and Yokohama and killed over 100,000 people. Their ship was converted to a hospital, and the nineteen-year-old Thayer found herself nursing victims of intolerable wounds, both physical and emotional. By the time she returned to Boston, her understanding of what it meant to be human had expanded dramatically.

Thayer entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the fall of 1923, enrolling in Anatomy and Life Drawing with Philip Hale and later in portraiture with Leslie Thompson. That summer she studied with Charles Hawthorne in Provincetown and she left the Museum School the next year when Hale offered to teach her privately.

Proficient by now in the graceful painting style of the Boston School, she was eager to learn more about color and composition, and the world at large. She spent a winter in Paris taking classes at the Académie Colarossi, and toured Italy with Rose Standish Nichols, the landscape architect. “Wherever we went, whoever we met, it was only minutes before Rose was discussing their condition, their politics, and their circumstances,” she remembered. She was in Morocco when she got the news that her large nude, “Circles” (now in the collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art), had been awarded the prestigious First Hallgarten Prize from the National Academy of Design. The next spring she was finally able to follow the advice of Royal Cortissoz, art historian and critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who had recommended that she spend some time studying Velasquez, but the voice that spoke to her most directly was that of Goya.

Although Thayer always felt the loyalty of a student toward Philip Hale, she was becoming increasingly conscious of the “straitjacket” of her Boston School training. She spent much of the winter months of 1930-1933 in New York City, where she studied with Harry Wickey at the Art Students League. She went to wrestling matches, which revealed very different aspects of the human body than an immobile model, and persuaded a doctor friend to get her into an operating theater. On New Year’s Eve 1930, her first solo exhibition opened at Doll and Richards in Boston. Franz Cochrane in the Transcript pointed out that a portrait of Bernard Bandler was notable for its lack of the “incidental accessories so dearly loved by students newly out of the Museum School.” The exhibition brought in eighteen new portrait commissions, but Thayer realized that she had much both to learn and to unlearn, and went to Fontainebleau for the summer to study with Jean Despujols.

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Young Polly
Young Polly in Garden
Polly with Snuff, late 1920s
	Polly with her Mother
Polly with her Husband Donald Starr, 1939
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The Middle Years

For some years, Thayer had been seeing a good deal of a Boston lawyer named Donald Starr, who had been at Harvard with her brother. In spite of their mutual attraction, she was hesitant to enter into marriage, unwilling to put less tham her whole heart into either marriage or career, and uncertain as to how well the two could coexist. In 1932, Starr resigned his post as Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts to sail around the world with several friends in a schooner he had built for that purpose. Thayer went to meet him in Genoa, Italy and became Polly Thayer Starr, although she continued to use her maiden name professionally. The couple spent their honeymoon in Paris, and then Donald rejoined the Pilgrim to finish his circumnavigation, while Thayer, whose tendency to sea sickness made her an unenthusiastic sailor, steamed home directly.

Marriage did not initially put much of a crimp in Thayer’s artistic activity. While her husband, home from his expedition, deliberated on his plans for the future, she painted a life-sized portrait of him. She also met May Sarton, who was at that time just beginning to turn her attention from acting to writing. The two became friends immediately, energizing each other’s work. In 1936, the Starrs decided to build a summer home on land which had been given them by Thayer’s mother from the farm in Hingham. That July, Thayer wrote to Sarton, “Donald seems to think he…will break me in to a little gentle cruising along the coast—heaven help me!” The expedition had an unexpected side effect. After two weeks on the water, Thayer asked to be put ashore at Old Lyme, Connecticut, and was stunned by what she experienced: “I wanted to kiss the ground. I’d never felt about the land as I did then. It was newly revealed to me, as if I’d been born again…” She settled herself at a small inn and painted for ten days straight. The landscapes she created expressed an awakened breadth of vision, a more instinctive use of the skills she had until then used so consciously. In August, due to a confusion of schedules, Neyan Stevens and May Sarton visited Thayer in Hingham at the same time. Thayer had vowed to keep working no matter what, and the dilemma was solved by May’s sitting while both Thayer and Stevens painted portraits of her.

The Starrs’ first daughter, Victoria, was born in 1940, and in that same year, Thayer was chosen Burton Emmett Memorial Exhibitor at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York for 1941. Rosamund Frost, reviewing her show in Art News, wrote:

After noticing how cleverly she follows the tufts and swirls, how she breaks her textures for variety, you realize that these innocent visions are arrived at through a sophisticated selection process. The portraits bear this out. May Sarton, which is splendid in color and an absolutely painterly presentation, is drawn with a special kind of nervous understanding. It comes off as few modern portraits do.

Determined in her life as in her work to get closer to essence, Thayer had been seeking for some years a spiritual community where she could feel at home. She found it in the Society of Friends, which she joined formally in 1942. This, together with a young child, another on the way, and a gregarious husband who loved travel, sports, and club life, made many calls upon her time, but her studio continued to be her “timeless place…where I lived most intensely, and where I wanted to live.” Her children were subjects of a kind which would not support the long and careful methods of Thayer’s early years. She filled pad after pad with quick charcoal drawings of them, some barely begun and others fully realized. The small creatures that held their attention drew Thayer’s as well, and were sometimes more amenable to posing. Hamsters and mice gave entrée into a whole new world of nature, and from there Thayer would go on to investigate snakes and crabs, cows and squirrels, bees, ants, and wasps, and the mysterious places of their habitation.

Around this time, Thayer was given a jeweler’s loupe. “It was a watershed,” she recalled. “As a child I had been shown how to pat bees by Dean Pound. It was always a thrill for me, and, to judge by the purr-like vibrations the stroking generated, for the bees as well. But I had no idea of the bronze wings’ beaded hinges imbedded in the delicious fur jacket, or the jewelry of their articulation, till I studied them under the loupe’s magnification.” She continued to seek out new techniques and concepts while her children were young, joining Bill Littlefield’s Painters Workshop and taking courses with Hans Hofmann and Carl Nelson.

In the late 1950s, the Hingham house burned to the ground, and while it was being rebuilt, the family rented a place on Powder Point in Duxbury. Thayer went out into the marshes near the house day after day to paint grass, gulls, sand, and water. The next summer, which she spent in Marion, her oils showed broad expanses of calm, intense blue sea, wooden boats, sky, sand and grass, sometimes with small human figures wandering in their midst. Year after year there were expeditions to Naushon Island, where the Starrs—Donald too had begun to paint—joined Charles Hopkinson, Gardner and Phyllis Cox, and Eric and Marnie Schroeder as guests of Thayer’s cousin, Edward Forbes of the Fogg Museum, on “Painters’ Weekends.” Alternatively, the group would go to Sharksmouth, the North Shore home of Charles Hopkinson. Each time she went to Sharksmouth, Thayer explored a new aspect of stone and sea, often pairing the massive worn rocks with an almost calligraphic rendering of the illusory delicacy of water that had shaped them.

Thayer’s mother died in 1959, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. With less need to stay close to town, the Starrs acquired a house on West Chop, Martha’s Vineyard, in the early 1960s, conveniently situated for Donald’s sailing. Thayer continued to work wherever she was, exhibiting in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but she rarely felt she had the blocks of time she needed. A show of city paintings and drawings at the Boston Public Library in 1969 was well received, but for ten years after it Thayer did not make arrangements for a major exhibition. She was still accepting portrait commissions, but the revelations were happening in her private time. Her pursuit of the meaning within the variety of nature had focused itself, intently, on flowers. She had loved, drawn, and painted flowers for years, but now they became for her a direct bridge to perceiving the “invisible.” Perhaps some of her relentless activity was spurred on by the fact that in the early seventies Thayer learned that she had glaucoma, and somewhat later, that she was also afflicted with macular degeneration. What had been an exercise in spiritual expansion had suddenly become an immediate necessity: she would have to learn to see in ways she had not yet imagined.

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Oral History Interview

This overview of the work of Polly Thayer (Starr) presents a series of her paintings and drawings, coordinated with audio tapes of the artist discussing her work.

Conducted by Robert Brown as part of the Oral History program of Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.

the Invisible within the Visible

The Later Years

As awareness of her dilemma seeped in, Thayer became more preoccupied than ever with the qualities of seeing. In 1979, she gave a talk in West Chop on the relationship between love and seeing, emphasizing that both, contrary to popular opinion, need be learned rather than taken for granted if they are to be made the most of.

During the winters, in her Back Bay studio, Thayer threw herself into the exploration of white cyclamen blossoms, whose pristine recurved petals, sometimes splashed with red at the heart, must have recalled to her the clean stretches of sand and snow she had portrayed so expressively. The concentration of her effort is revealed in an extraordinary collection of works on paper, many of them done with white chalk on black background, others incorporating pastel, watercolor, oil, or collage materials. The images, balancing between the seen and the unseen, lure the viewer into a world quite different from that of the dedicated flower lover or even the paintings of a Georgia O’Keeffe.

Summertime brought the Starrs again close to the ocean, where beach peas sprang right out of the sand, and Queen Anne’s lace and thistles adorned the wastelands. Examining the tiny pea flowerlets under her jeweler’s loupe, Thayer saw their intimate connection with the urgency of nature and represented them on a scale both tender and monumental. Bees, ants, hornets, wasps, and spiders increasingly joined her repertory, and the cats whose souls she had tried to realize since she had brought Hunya home from Paris in 1930 were distilled more and more to nearly transparent essences of lithe line and spirit.

At the age of 87, when it was clear that her eyesight would not permit her to commit her observations to paper for much longer, Thayer undertook two of the most precise and poetic projects she had ever attempted. The first was an infinitely delicate sequence of drawings depicting the life cycle of the thistle, and the second was a final portrait of herself. The physical skills she had challenged and honed for seven decades were at the command now not only of an eye, but of a soul which looked through the eye—directly at the viewer—and acknowledged both its own strength and its fragility.

“You never achieve what you want,” she admitted, “but you’re always getting nearer to the essence. And that’s a search that is all-important…To the extent that I have been able to enter into the secret of things, and to convey something of this experience to others through my art, I am deeply grateful.”

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