When first looking upon the untitled frontispiece of Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909), one is not quite sure what the kaleidoscope of color represents. Turning the page to find the title “Peacock in the Woods”, the reader flips back to pick the bird out from its surround, but does so only with some difficulty — the very challenge that painter Abbott Handerson Thayer ascribed to predators of the spectacularly-adorned creature. In this one scene, Thayer extravagantly displays many of the techniques used by animals to achieve invisibility. The colored spots and streaks obliterate its silhouette. Green feathers on its back become foliage, while the copper feathers alternately mimic sunlit and shadowed tree bark and rock. The iridescent ocelli — smallest and dimmest near the body, progressively larger and brighter toward the periphery — draw the eye away from the bird, and our gaze gets lost in the blurred foliage beyond the tail’s “evanescent border”. Even the spectacular multi-plumed turquoise crest serves to deceive, mimicking a piece of shimmering blue sky. In his introduction to Concealing-Coloration — a work written primarily by Gerald Thayer to summarize his father’s theories — Abbott tells us that the peacock’s hues “‘melt’ him into the scene to a degree past all human analysis”.
While directing the reader’s attention to all these details, Thayer’s introduction fails to mention that, rather than being painted from life somewhere in India — the peacock’s native habitat — the artist and his assistant had contrived the scene using a taxidermied peacock from the family menagerie, which they had propped up on a stone wall running through the deciduous woodland outside his Dublin, New Hampshire home. The indistinguishable colors of figure and ground all have their origin on the painter’s palette, not in the real world, making “Peacock in the Woods” a stunning artistic and scientific misdirection in service of Thayer’s wildly erroneous assertion that the coloration of all animals was meant to conceal them from predators.
Perhaps Thayer had placed the peacock front and center since it had famously vexed Charles Darwin as controverting his theory of natural selection. Something so conspicuous as the peacock’s sequined tail surely could never have been produced by the deadly Malthusian game of predation that Darwin believed to drive biological evolution. Like Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, Thayer was “more Darwinian than Darwin himself”, rejecting the theory of sexual selection proposed in Darwin’s Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) for a totalizing “law” of concealment compassing not just ground-dwelling birds and mammals, but bejeweled iridescent tropical tanagers, harlequin-hued coral reef fish, and dazzlingly patterned and painted butterflies.
Untrained in the art of optical illusion, of which painters were masters, zoologists could never discover Nature’s methods of rendering animals absolutely indistinguishable from their surroundings. “Our book”, declared Thayer — and it was indeed a family affair, for Abbott Thayer’s wife Emma painted many of the plates’ backgrounds — “presents, not theories, but revelations, as palpable and indisputable as radium or X-rays”. While his ex-cathedra pronouncements drove some naturalists, such as big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt, crazy, Thayer had many well-respected scientific supporters, including Wallace and evolutionary biologist Edward Poulton, with whom he collaborated on an elaborate interactive display at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Thayer loved to take skeptics of his camouflage theory outside, where he would arrange elaborate demonstrations with disappearing duck decoys, cutout stencils of animal silhouettes, and a fantastic array of stuffed birds and mammals, some of which Thayer had painted in reverse countershading to make them stand out against the landscape. Many of the book’s 120 black-and-white photographs reproduce such demonstrations; while their relatively poor reproduction quality reduces their impact on a modern viewer (and leads to the question of how black-and-white images can effectively convey color), they seem to have struck Thayer’s contemporaries as convincing evidence of his obsession. The colored plates (gathered below) culminate in a clever pièce de résistance, in which a copperhead snake, invisible among dry oak leaves, leaps into view through a cutout overlay.
While the copperhead is painted in an intensely naturalistic style (most likely because it was mainly executed by Rockwell Kent, listed as “assistant” for this painting), all of Thayer’s other subjects — wood ducks, blue jays, birds-of-paradise, roseate spoonbills, and flamingoes — are painted in the same impressionist style of the peacock, allowing him freer reign to metamorphose solid animals into diaphanous blotches of color that seem to mirror and match their environment. His son Gerald’s illustrations, on the other hand — depicting ruffed grouse, cottontail rabbit, and caterpillars — approach photographic realism, echoing the descriptive style of the text, which faithfully elaborates his father’s vision.
Feb 7, 2023