From the charcoal-
Named Ethel Randolph Thayer after her mother, though always called Polly, she was born in 1904 to a family that had encouraged forthright communication for generations (Ralph Waldo Emerson was among her forbears), and 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-
Winters spent in a Boston townhouse alternated with summers at Weir River Farm in Hingham, Massachusetts, where Polly took boundless delight in the goings-
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 was transferred to 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 Jim on a trip to the Orient. While they were in Korea, Thayer’s sister died, and hardly had they received that news than they found themselves 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-
Thayer entered the Boston 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” 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-
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 than 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-
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-
The Starrs’ first daughter, Victoria, was born in 1940, and in the 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. “That pigment & canvas should be transformed into sunlight and moonlight, relatives and grazing cows, is magical to the utmost,” she commented in a paper written for the Tuesday Club.
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-
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 -
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 1960's, 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. When one sees the astonishing quantity and quality of work she was creating during that period, one can only wonder if it was because she could not bear to break the impetus of her vision. 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.
As awareness of her dilemma seeped in, Thayer became more proccupied 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 to 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. They are not flower portraits or organic designs, but energies beckoning beyond themselves.
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 joined her repertory increasingly, both on their own account and in partnership with their flowers, 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-
“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-